Review: The Betrayers – David Bezmozgis

The BetrayersI enjoyed reading this unusual book, The Betrayers, which charts a few days in the life of senior Israeli politician Baruch Kotler as he travels to Yalta to escape press coverage of his extra-marital affair. Along the way we pick up on Baruch’s intriguing back-story as a Soviet dissident, and also meet the man who denounced him to the authorities many years ago in Russia.

David Bezmozgis was born in Latvia but brought up in Canada, where, after publishing a successful collection of short stories, he published his first novel, The Free World about a group of Russian/Jewish refugees who settle in Italy.  In The Betrayers, Bezmozgis writes about Israeli Cabinet Minister Baruch Kotler who wishes to resign his post in protest at the Israeli clearance of West Bank settlements (based on real-life events from 2005).

Baruch is a Russian émigré to Israel, with a long history of protest against the regime, which earned him 13 years in a Soviet prison camp.  Even then he was a stubborn prisoner at one point being so infuriated about interference with his mail that he went on hunger strike and had to be force-fed by tubes.

The book opens with Baruch and his young lover Leora arriving in the resort town of Yalta in the Ukraine, having fled Israel because of an encroaching scandal.  A day or two earlier, Baruch was called to an evening meeting in a park with a government agent.  The agent tells him that he must withdraw his objections to government policy towards the settlements.  Baruch, with a stubbornness born of resistance to Soviet power, refuses to change his views whereupon the agent produces an envelope of photographs which Baruch refuses to even open, but assumes reveal intimate moments between himself and Leora.  He leaves the park, picks up his girl-friend and together they leave the country on a flight to the Ukraine.

In Yalta, the hotel the couple intended to stay in is full and so by a long chain of coincidences they end up staying in a guest-house owned by the wife of Vladimir Tankilevich, the very person who denounced Baruch back in Soviet Russia, leading to his incarceration.

Tankilevich has fallen on hard times.  Life in Yalta for a 70 year-old Jew and his wife is a life of struggle, dependant in part on a small stipend from the Jewish centre.  This stipend comes with rules and regulations which make life burdensome for the aging Tankilevich and he makes one last attempt to explain his position to the administrator of the stipend fund, a stern and imperious woman who knows of his treachery back in Russia and seems to enjoy humiliating Tankilevich.

The boardwalk, Yalta

The boardwalk, Yalta (image from Wikipedia)

Before long  Vladimir Tankilevich and Baruch Kotler realise who each other is and we are treated to a long extended discourse with them as they relive their pasts and discover that perhaps things were not what they seemed at the time.

While this makes for a good story in itself, the enjoyment of the book comes from the many descriptive passages.  Baruch had several childhood holidays in Yalta and he reminisces about his athletic father’s frustration at his son who had no sporting ability whatsoever.  Baruch’s father made him run races along the promenade and now Baruch makes Leora time him as he tries once again to run to a distant post while amused spectators “gaze with benign amusement at the spectacle of the little pot-bellied Jew, chugging along the promenade, knees and elbows pumping”.

Despite the serious theme, the book author has a light touch and a sardonic humour creeps in to every scene and there are many illuminating word pictures of life in Yalta

Several folding tables were arrayed on the gravel turnout. On the tables dozens of clear glass jars glowed with different shades of honey, from palest yellow to deepest amber. On the ground, in wicker baskets, sprawled mounds of apricots and melons. And from metal racks flanking the tables, long strings of purple Yalta onions hung like curtains. Shaded under a large blue beach umbrella, a Russian woman and a Tatar boy in his teens sat on folding chairs. The boy was hunched over, doing something on his mobile phone, his thumbs moving in rapid patterns, while the woman gazed languidly at the highway and her approaching customers.

Apart from a very good story, well told, The Betrayers explores the idea of betrayal, which runs through every theme in the book.  Baruch was betrayed while in Soviet Russia, but he has betrayed his wife and family in various ways, and Tankilevich, who at first seems to be the arch-betrayer, seems to have been acting to save his son from other betrayals, but ultimately is betrayed by his son.  Nobody is allowed to have simple motives, but all seem stained by impossible choices, badly made.  Towards the end of the book, Baruch sums up the human condition with these words,

This is the primary insight I have gleaned from life: The moral component is no different from the physical component—a man’s soul, a man’s conscience, is like his height or the shape of his nose. We are all born with inherent propensities and limits. You can no more be reviled for your character than for your height. No more reviled than revered.

Altogether, this is a very good read, confirming David Bezmozgis as a writer to follow with interest.  With only ten years of published writing behind him we can hopefully expect that he will write many more of his well-written and unusual books.

Review: Lila – Marilynne Robinson

lilaMarilynne Robinson came to fame with her novel Gilead in which an elderly small-town Congregational Minister John Ames reflects on his own life and the lives of his immediate family, particularly his second wife Lila and his seven year old son. In her second book Home, Robinson write about the family of John Ames best friend Robert Boughton, focusing on his son Jack, the black-sheep of the family who’s reappearance after a break of several years resurrects a whole series of conflict within the family.

Lila is the third book in the series and returns to focus on a period a few years before Gilead, when a homeless woman comes to lives in a broken-down shack on the edge of Gilead and slowly starts to impact the community, eventually marrying John Ames, despite his great age.

This book, like the others, is extremely well-written and it is immediately obvious that Robinson has taken great care with every sentence, convincingly writing in the “voice” of Lila for much of the book but also bringing out the dignity and maturity of John Ames whenever he becomes the focus of the story.

Lila was abandoned by her mother as a very young child and was brought up by an itinerant woman called Doll, who found the four-year old child living a precarious life on the steps of a rough-and-ready bar. Doll picks up the child and runs off with her, cuddling her in her shawl and finds an elderly lady who takes both Doll and Lila in for a while as they try to clean up the semi-savage child.

As we read of Lila, now an adult woman living in the shack in Gilead, the book keeps flashing back to lengthy passages in which we read Lila’s story. Doll cared for Lila throughout her childhood and youth. Times were extremely hard and for much of the time they joined up with a small gang of itinerant workers who took on the most menial jobs on farmsteads in return for a few coins or perhaps for a few meals of potatoes and corn.

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Review: The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

strange new thingsBack in 2002 Michel Faber published a novel called The Crimson Petal and the White which Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian called “a supremely literary novel” and “dizzyingly accomplished” – a description which I totally agreed with.  Looking back on this superb book I still feel it would be up in my top ten ever list (if I had such a thing).  Since then I have been waiting for Michel Faber to write another book of equal quality and my hopes were raised when The Book of Strange New Things was published this summer.  At 592 pages, it looked reassuringly long and the subject seemed sufficiently unusual for me to expect something really special here.  I will tell you at the end of this review whether I found it.

First the story, which can’t be better summarise than in the publisher’s description from the cover:  “Peter Leigh is a missionary called to go on the journey of a lifetime. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Bea, he boards a flight for a remote and unfamiliar land, a place where the locals are hungry for the teachings of the Bible – his ‘book of strange new things’. It is a quest that will challenge Peter’s beliefs, his understanding of the limits of the human body and, most of all, his love for Bea”.

It would seem that a vast and mysterious commercial company called UCIS have managed to colonise a remote planet.  It is so remote that visitors to the planet have to be put into a state of suspended animation while travelling on the space-ship.  When they arrive and are brought round, they find themselves in a bland, shopping-mall style building with a very relaxed community of engineers, scientists and medics, all of whom have been selected for having little to lose by spending large parts of their lives in this remote location.

Peter, a highly committed Christian, has been selected to travel to the planet because the planet has other inhabitants who require his services as a pastor.  These are strange near-humanoid creatures (Peter names them the Oaseans from the word Oasis) who interact with the human colony by providing food in exchange for pharmaceutical drugs (quite what they do with them is never fully explained).  A proportion of these creatures have been converted to Christianity by a previous human visitor but following his disappearance, the Oaseans threaten to withdraw the food supplies from the human colony unless they are supplied with another Christian teacher.

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Review: Hidden Knowledge – Bernardine Bishop

hidden knowledgeI have never read anything by Bernardine Bishop before but was drawn to Hidden Knowledge by reading a review of it in the Sunday Times and then by the five star reviews on Amazon (which I have been pleased to add to).  Although clerical abuse features in the book, I wouldn’t say that it’s the only theme and I was reminded of William Nicholson’s books (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour) in the way it focuses on a small community of people and explores the often complex relationships between them.

We have two groups of people here. Romola Tree has two brothers. One brother, Hereward, is a successful author and has a much younger female partner Carina, an Italian 22 year-old woman of considerable charm.  For much of the book, Hereward lies in a coma after a complex heart operation. The other brother, Father Roger Tree, is suspended from the priesthood and is in trouble with the law, having had a complaint about him abusing a young boy many years ago. Roger comes to live with his sister Romola while awaiting trial and we read much about his back story and what led him to the place he finds himself in now.

The other group of people centres around another abused boy and his mother Betty and and sister Julia. Ten year old Mark drowned while on a school trip twenty years before despite an attempt to rescue him by Father Roger Tree who was school chaplain at the time.  Betty has had much to deal with in her life and is now coming to terms with widowhood.  Daughter Julia has challenges of her own, being conscious of the ticking away of her biological clock despite her successful career in medicine.

Together, these characters provide Bernardine Bishop with plenty of scope for a rich and complex human drama.  The pace is slow, but the story unfolds in a very satisfying way and I found myself being drawn through the pages quickly, and wanting to get back to the book whenever I put it down.  As a male reader, I found much of the story rather female oriented, but the quality of the writing transcends gender issues.  The best women writers can write about men as well as any male (Jane Gardam for example), and likewise for good male writers when writing about women.

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Review: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsI thought I wouldn’t be able to stay away from writing about books for long and it only took a fine novel like The Paying Guests to start putting fingers to keyboard again.

Let me say at the start, there are no spoilers in this review.

After reading a few “so-so” books I found myself wanting to bury myself in some really good writing and recover that feeling of being swept along by a novel, resenting the time I have to spend away from it. I have always enjoyed reading Sarah Waters before (Fingersmith, The Little Stranger etc) for her complex plotting and rich characterisation and so when The Paying Guests came out I decided to try a sample chapter on the Kindle. Within a few minutes or reading I had made the purchase of the full novel and can only say that this is a terrific read, deeply absorbing and rich in atmosphere and insights into the human condition.

As the book opens we find ourselves a very few years after the First World War in a suburb of South London. Frances Wray and her mother live in a big old house which has become too expensive for them to run. Mr Wray has died of a heart-attack leaving only debts and disorder. Frances describes him as “a nuisance when he was alive, he made a nuisance of himself by dying and he’s managed to go on being a nuisance ever since”. Frances’s two brothers were both killed in the War and so the only option for the two women seems to take in “lodgers”, or as the prefer to call them, “paying guests” – a more genteel description to early 20th century sensibilities.

The paying guests arrive in the form of a young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber (Lilian and Leonard, but what a long time it takes for everybody to get onto first-name terms!). Sarah Waters’ description of the first few days of adaptation is written with an artist’s hand – Frances and her mother find it difficult to share their home with these two strangers with their mysterious noises and comings and goings. They feel that the house is no longer their own (which it isn’t) and even their own space is invaded throughout the day because the Barbers have to go through their kitchen to get to the outside toilet (how easily we forget what life was like for most people a mere 100 years ago). Furthermore, Mr Barber has an extremely annoying habit of stopping to chat with Frances Wray while she is working in the kitchen – his easy familiarity grates with her desire for distance and a more formal relationship with her lodgers.

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Monk’s House – Sussex home of Virginia Woolf

We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf.  I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.

In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,

Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours.  DIARIES 1932

In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse.  It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.

Monk's House

Monk’s House

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Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

Death in Pont-AvenAnd what do we have here?  The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec?  Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin.  One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective.   There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough,  a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).

I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime.  Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner.  The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.

The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents.  His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin.  Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.

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Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look whos backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

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Review: Slater’s Sussex, The Colour Woodcuts of Eric Slater – James Trollope

SLATER BOOK COVERI had the privilege last year of going to an exhibition of colour woodcuts by Sussex artist Eric Slater (1898-1963) which launched the publication of a new book, Slater’s Sussex by James Trollope.

As a child Slater led a comfortable life as the son of a noted silversmith.  However, his father was struck down by pneumonia and heart failure when Eric was only eight years old and he moved with his mother, grand-mother and aunt down to Sussex where they lived in Bexhill, Winchelesa and Seaford.  Young Eric was a sickly child and his health prevented him enrolling for the army and serving in the First World War, instead studying craft and design at Hastings School of Art.

While living at Pevensey, Eric Slater was taught how to produce colour woodcuts by a neighbour, Arthur Rigden Read, who was an accomplished artist in this a notoriously difficult and demanding medium, requiring considerable craftsmanship as well as artistic ability.   Images are cut out from a wooden block using knives, chisels and gougers with one block forming the “key” block giving the outline design and subsequent block forming blocks of colour to be overlaid one at a time to build up a printed picture with up to ten layers of colour.  Although this work is laborious, it can all be done in the home studio without the need for a printing press – the image is transferred to the paper by painting the raised surfaces of the block with watercolour paint then laying the paper on the block and rubbing the back of it.  With up to ten blocks (one for each colour) a print run of say 50 sheets would require 500 impressions to be made.

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

These techniques originated in 18th century Japan but were adapted and developed by Europeans and Americans throughout the 19th century and by the 1930s colour woodcuts had become very  popular in Britain and beyond.  Slater had a decade of success in the ’30s with a dealer in Mayfair’s Cork Street and sales in America and Australia.  Unfortunately the popularity of colour woodcuts was not so survive the War when less demanding printing techniques rose to prominence while the market for magazine and advertising illustrations grew.

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Review: Walking the Woods and the Water – Nick Hunt

walkingIn my previous article I wrote about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s as covered in his book A Time of Gifts (and two other volumes). This week sees the publication of Nick Hunt’s book Walking the Woods & the Water which describes his own journey in the steps of Leigh Fermor, 78 years later.  Nick Hunt has journeyed through a very different Europe to the one Leigh Fermor walked through, with the Second World War and the creation of the Soviet Empire (and its later fall) having brought vast changes, particularly along the eastern sections of this walk.

I found it a fascinating exercise to read these two books back to back. They are very different in almost every respect, even though both Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nick Hunt both demonstrate in their books an incredibly adventurous spirit which puts both gap-year explorers and mature tourists to shame.   To start off on a journey like this with so little in the way of planning and resources means that you are going to be faced with crises and near-disasters which will at times be dangerous, even life-threatening, particularly in the more remote regions of Eastern Europe.

While Nick didn’t have the aristocratic contacts which gave Leigh Fermor occasional respite from his trudge across Europe, Nick at least had the website Couch Surfing to help him plan some of his overnight stops.  If ever proof were needed of the generosity of strangers this book is a good starting point, for not only did Nick’s hosts provide him with a bed, they often fed him and generally welcomed him into their lives, often inviting him to stay on and meet friends and relatives, visit bars and clubs, see local tourist attractions and then give him a lift to the best place to commence the next stage of his walk.  There is also a network of Leigh Fermor enthusiasts who met up with Nick from time to time and helped him identify locations covered in the earlier books.  These encounters are some of the most interesting aspect of his book and give a real insight into what it is like to live in the places he visited.

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