I’ve not read any South African books for a long time – noteworthy South African novels which stick in my mind would be Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Disgrace by J M Coetzee and a couple of books by Nadime Gordimer (I am ashamed to notice that these are all by white South Africans). I read in a newspaper that Damon Algut’s highly-regarded 1995 novel, The Quarry has just been re-released (at a very reasonable price on Kindle) and needing a break from lengthier books I decided to try it.
Damon Galgut has been short-listed twice for the Booker Prize and has also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Good Doctor. He is noted for writing about Post-Apartheid South Africa and uses his position as a well-known writer to take a stand on human rights issues.
As I read The Quarry I felt that Galgut was using the fewest words possible – this is undecorated prose, matching the bleak landscape of pre-reformed South African townships. Into this landscape walks an unnamed man. He has been walking for days, living off the land and sleeping in ditches. Before long we learn that he is on the run and doesn’t care where he is going, only that wherever it is, it is somewhere other than the place he is fleeing from.
The land he walks through seems to be a desolate place; neglected scrub-land, with scattered villages which have turned their backs on the world – and passing travellers. A car stops and a lift is offered, but who is in more danger, the driver of his new passenger? The sinister landscape adds to a sense of tension:
It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry. Boulders glistened occasionally from side to side with that fulsome pinkness of flesh.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Quarry – Damon Galgut
Back in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny. The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.
The “Chemin” has become a “walking memorial” for the Second World War Escape Lines Memorial Society (who have a fascinating calendar of events including various other lengthy walks and bike rides).
Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route. He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s. His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.
Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.
Click here to continue reading Review: Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton
This book ticks a number of boxes for me:
- It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
- It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
- It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
- It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.
Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.
Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic. Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).
Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein. After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize. Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time, short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.
Click here to continue reading Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein
The Rosie Project is a bit of phenomenon. It’s going to be published in 34 territories over the next few months which for a first novel by a 56 year old man is not bad going. The author, Graeme Simsion, comes from Melbourne and the Australians have had the opportunity to read it well before us as is shown by this review by Lisa on ANZ LitLovers.
The book is basically a rom-com, but with the unusual twist that the man seeking love (genetics professor Don Tillman) has a psychological disorder which I assume is Asperger’s Syndrome. (Wikipedia says this causes significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests). In Don’s case, his condition has resulted in him adopting a mechanistic and analytical approach to the problems of daily life.
Don has a weekly menu which he does not vary allowing him to place the same grocery order every week (thus minimising time and effort spent shopping and cooking). His apartment has no pictures on the walls because Don knows that after a few days he will no longer notice them, so what’s the point? His diary is programmed to the minute and if any appointment is delayed or prolonged he has to go back and adjust the rest of the diary to reduce time scheduled for leisure activities.
With traits like these, it is no surprise that Don doesn’t find it easy to form relationships with women. He sees little point in small-talk and has a habit of applying an incisive logic to any off-the-cuff remark, failing to see that the give and take of conversation is crucial to developing relationships. For example, on receiving an invitation to follow up a lecture over dinner with an attractive woman, Don says,
“What specific topics were you interested in?”
“Oh” she said, “I thought we could just talk generally . . . get to know each other a bit”.
This sounded extremely unfocused. “I need at least a broad indication of the subject domain. What did I say that particularly interested you?”
“Oh . . . I guess the stuff about the computer testers in Denmark.”
“Computer applications testers,” I corrected her.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
2013 sees the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, “the tube”, and Penguin books have brought out twelve small books (available either singly or as a boxed set), one for each tube line, commemorating the wonderfully eccentric tube line which serves the Britain;s capital.
I found this to be a fascinating collection with a wide range of styles and themes. The design qualities are excellent, as you might expect from Penguin with a consistent look and feel while allowing distinctive covers for each book. This is a very pleasing set of books – I am not a book collector in any sense of the word but I can see this set’s appeal to almost anyone for whom the tube is a daily habit (or ordeal).
I’m not going to go through each book but will give a few “honourable mentions” plucked not quite at random from this set. Firstly, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube, is a potted history of the tube system, describing how the tube in some ways defined London. Where the tube went London followed, with suburbs extending along the tracks and villages appearing where stations were built. John describes his personal history of the tube then writes about the experiences of being firstly a passenger and secondly being in the driver’s cab. If ever you want a short book about the tube, it’s history and what it means today then this is it.
Click here to continue reading Review: Penguin Underground Lines – various authors
It would be easy to let the title of this book put you off it: Diary of a Man in Despair, does not sound as though it’s going to be an entertaining read, but I share the view of Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations that this is an “extraordinary document”, a “unique testament” to the horrors the Nazi dominance in Germany in the 1940s.
I suppose one might ask why anyone would want to read a book like this – it’s not going to “entertaining” in any sense of the word, but my interest is in trying to understand how whole nations and communities can go so completely off the rails that they lost all sense of human values. Anyone who reads books like this must wonder how they themselves would cope if the political systems of our own country changed and a Fascist regime came to power (British readers might want to beware the current anti-immigrant rhetoric!). Reck gives an example of how one could behave, remaining true to oneself despite the immense pressure to conform.
I have collected a few books on A Common Reader which detail the lives of those Germans who opposed Nazi rule, but none is quite as vivid as Friedrich Reck’s diary (which was eventually going to bring an awful punishment on the head of it’s writer). At the end of the book an Afterword by the historian Richard J Evans (author of the magesterial Third Reich trilogy) quotes the extremes Reck had to go to keep this explosive diary from secret, “Night after night I hide this record deep in the woods on my land . . . constantly on watch lest I am observed, constantly changing my hiding place”. Later on he took to burying it in a tin box in a field.
Click here to continue reading Review: Diary of a Man in Despair – Friedrich Reck
Ljubljana Tales is published by New Europe Writers, a publishing enterprise dedicated to exploring the literary connections between the various European states, with an emphasis on those countries which were formally behind the Iron Curtain.
They have published several volumes of “Tales” including Warsaw Tales (now available for free download), Budapest Tales, Prague Tales and Bucharest Tales. I like the idea of anthologies of books from a particular city, especially when it’s a city I know little about. Ljubljana is of course the capital of the former Yugoslavia nation of Slovenia. My son visitited Ljubljana last year and keeps telling me what a an interesting city it is and this seems to be confirmed by its Wikipedia article.
Ljubljana Tales is a very nicely presented mix of poetry and short fiction in very accessible translations which all reflect the literary tradition of the city. Slovenia had it’s own “Spring” which began in 1987 when the magazine Nova Revija published articles demanding reform. We who live in nations with a more settled history find it difficult to understand the place that writing had in the revolutionary movements which led to the liberation of countries like Slovenia.
The range of pieces in Ljubljana Tales is very wide. About half the book consists of short poems, and the other half a mix of short fiction, never more than about half a dozen pages long. I counted 66 pieces in total and found that as they were so short it was easy to immerse myself in the literary community of Ljubjana for a couple of days by picking the book up at odd moments. In fact, some of the pieces would make useful accompaniments to a visit to the city. For example, Miha Pintarič’s The Cobblers Bridge makes fun of an old ritual that used to take place there:
Click here to continue reading Review: Ljubljana Tales – New Europe Writers
I apologise that my email notification system is not working very well at the moment. While some subscribers are receiving emails for every post, some are receiving none. I have tried and failed to resolve this problem and am in the process of installing a new system to which I have to transfer all the addresses. I hope to have this working next week.
I’ve only discovered Andrea Camilleri three months ago, and considering this is now the 15th English volume in his Inspector Montelbano’s series of police procedural novels, I have a lot of catching up to do. I reviewed the 14th book in the series in December and I have a combined volume of the first three novels on my Kindle just in case I ever find myself marooned on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean (unlikely).
Andrea Camilleri is now 87 years old and he is a wonderful example of what can be achieved if you just carry on working into old age, for The Dance of the Seagull is a cut above any other crime novel I’ve read this year, showing a mind that is as agile as any younger writer. British crime novelist P D James is now 92 years old and shows a similar ability to keep churning out high quality books. When it comes to sheer persistence perhaps the “very oldies” have something to teach us.
The great Inspector Montelbano is now 57 years old and is worrying about his age. He wakes at five thirty every morning and stares at the ceiling, bemoaning an earlier time when he slept through in one stretch. He has a much younger girl-friend and is keen to show her that he still has many of the attributes of a much younger man, but in reality, it is a bit of a struggle to keep up the pretence.
Click here to continue reading Review: The Dance of the Seagull – Andrea Camilleri
I don’t usually publish articles at weekend but wanted to recognise two items which don’t fit into my normal review schedule.
The first is this week’s announcement that the Literature Prize has gained sponsorship from The Folio Society and is now to be known as The Folio Prize. The Literature Prize was first announced last October in reaction to general dis-satisfaction with the Man Booker Prize which seemed to have prioritised readability over artistic achievement. Andrew Kidd, the agent for the new prize told The Bookseller magazine, that the prize “will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition”.
He went on to say, ”We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.”
The Literature Prize people have obviously been busy since then and this weeks announcement about sponsorship shows that they have not only gained a substantial prize fund (£40,000 for the winner) but also established an Academy of 100 writers and critics including such names as Margaret Attwood, Colm Tóibín, Salley Vickers and Philip Pullman who will select titles to go on the short-list. Each year, five members of the Academy will be asked to be the judges for the competition.
I am not usually very interested in literary prizes but this one looks like it will be well worth-while. The Folio Society is a great match for the aims of the prize because, as Andrew Kidd says, “they are about recognising the books of today that will be in print in 50 or 100 years time”.
At a time when many of us are planning short city-breaks I’d also like to mention a little book that came my way called Doodle Paris, a sort of colouring book for grown-ups but just as much fun for a child. When I saw it I thought what a great idea this is for anyone who happens to be spending a few days in Paris. You can take Doodle Paris with you and use it to record your memories of the visit. The idea is simple,
“Each page comes with a simple illustration prompt inspired by the French capital, say the window of a patisserie, a line drawing of the city’s skyline, or a series of picture frames hanging in the Musée d’Orsay, and encourages you to draw in the rest”.
Not many people would have the confidence to take a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and actually draw something while sitting at a café table or relaxing on a park bench. This book may give you the prompt you need to begin sketching – no other equipment is required other than a pencil or pen.
There’s plenty of space in the book for recording your notes and comments too and I could well imagine that if you took Doodle Paris with you it’s one book you would keep on your shelves for years to come to help you remember your visit.
I’m having a week of short stories – on Monday I wrote about Peter Stamm’s rather depressing book We’re Flying and today I’m reviewing the very different Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, published by the highly regarded Pushkin Press.
Edith Pearlman has been writing short stories for many years (she is now 76), and although she has won various prizes and been published in prestigious journals, fame has eluded her. With Binocular Vision, Pushkin Press have published a collection of her work spanning the last 40 years. Having read it cover to cover, I must agree with other reviewers (including Anne Patchett, who wrote the introduction to the book) that she is a very fine writer who has mastered the art of the short story and deserves to be numbered among the greats of the genre.
It is the quality of the writing that marks Edith Pearlman out. Her elegant prose captured me right from the start – these stories are just so very well-written. She has a faultless style which sometimes brought me up short as I had to re-read sentences to allow their impact to sink in. But more than that, her range of subject matter is so vast you can never had any idea what the next story will be about.
It’s difficult to review short stories because you can’t write about every story in the book yet how to you select one to provide an example? I’ll focus on the first story, Inbound which gives a flavour of the Edith Pearlman’s style, and in fact “Inbound” is to my mind one of the best in the collection.
It concern a young girl going with her parents and her baby sister Lily (who has Downs Syndrome) to Cambridge Massachusetts to visit the Harvard University Library. Sophie’s father Ken is an academic who is already pushing his daughter in the direction of studying at his alma mater. As they walk through the gates of the university Ken points out the statue of John Harvard and asks Sophie,
“Would you like to live here some-day Sophie?”
Click here to continue reading Review: Binocular Vision – Edith Pearlman