Review: Anatomy of a Night – Anna Kim

kim Anna Kim was born in South Korea but was brought up in Germany where her father was appointed a Professor of Fine Arts.  She writes in German and her book Anatomy of a Night is one of the first four books to be published by new Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co who specialise in publishing contemporary books in English translation.  The publisher’s website says that Anna Kim, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature, the Elias Canetti Fellowship, the Robert Musil Fellowship, and the 2009 Austrian Prize for Literature, among others”.

This novel deals with a difficult subject; an epidemic of suicides among the Innuit community in Greenland.  Apparently Innuit suicide is an ongoing problem and a quick search on the Internet brought up some in-depth studies by Canadian academics about the possible reasons for it such as

– Lack of coping skills when relationships break-up
– Lack of access to mental health treatment;
– Loss of control over land and living conditions;
– Socio-economic factors such as poor housing and employment opportunities.

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Review: From the Fatherland With Love – Ryu Murakami

murukamiFrom the Fatherland With Love is a vast novel (664 pages), written on an epic scale, an alternative reality novel describing the events surrounding the invasion of and economically bankrupt Japan by an opportunistic North Korea.  It’s author, Ryu Murakami, wrote the book in 2005 when the Japanese economy had gone into decline.  By setting the book just a few years in the future, he offered his public a vision of a dystopian future close at hand and which seemed at the time (and perhaps still is) all too plausible.  Here and there we can see that elements of Murakami’s vision have actually come to pass, not in Japan perhaps, but certainly in Greece and Cyprus.

The year is 2010, but things are not quite how they are in today’s world. Japan has gone into serious economic decline and nation can no longer afford social care, resulting in vast shanty towns constructed in city-parks.  The banks have implemented stringent controls on how much money can be withdrawn from cash machines and sales tax has soared.  The public sector is the only employer offering real jobs, but security guards have to protect government workers from demonstrating crowds of less fortunate citizens. Criminal gangs are rife and the black-market flourishes.

The rest of the world has responded to the economic crisis by retreating into isolationism. America has a vast financial deficit and can no longer afford to act as the world’s policeman. Instead it is pushing for security agreements with East Asian countries, even a non-aggression pact with North Korea. Europe is concerned only with its own boundaries and China and Russia no longer want to get involved with other nation’s problems. Japan is effectively abandoned to its fate.

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Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein

balzacThis 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.

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Review: Diary of a Man in Despair – Friedrich Reck

diaryIt 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.

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Review: Ljubljana Tales – New Europe Writers

lubliana tales 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:

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Review: The Dance of the Seagull – Andrea Camilleri

seagullI 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.

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Review: We’re Flying – Peter Stamm

peter stamm

Short stories come in so many different types you never know what you’re getting until you open the book and plough into the first two or three.  Sometimes the main purpose of them is entertainment as with collections of crime or humorous stories.  Other times they have a message, perhaps being little vignettes illustrating the difficulties of life.   Sometimes they seem like elongated poems, written in precisely worded prose to give an impression of a mood or an atmosphere.   Or if you go back to the great short story writers like Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant you fine writers who saw their job as writing miniature novels with an opening scene setting, a small cast of characters, a plot and a conclusion.

On the whole, I find that the majority of the more “literary” short stories rather disappointing. I suppose I think that a short story should be above all else, “a story”.  It’s not enough just to present a scene with no narrative form and no ending.  The words, however nicely put together are not enough, there has be a flow of action: something has to happen.

Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm falls loosely in the middle of the story/literary axis with his new collection of stories, We’re Flying.  Something usually happens in his stories, but on the other hand he is mostly concerned with the word picture he creates.  And unfortunately (from my perspective) the stories are almost unremittingly down-beat (despite little flashes of light and hope to relieve the bleakness).  His Wikipedia entry describes his “cool and sparse” writing style which certainly seems to be an accurate description.

As a reviewer, I shouldn’t divulge the whole content of a story but for the sake of illustration I’ll break the rule and describe the story, Holy Sacrament.  A Pastor has moved to Lake Constance because he thought that the people in southern Germany would be more open to a  creative ministry.  Once he gets to his new parish he finds that the people are as conservative as anywhere.  He upsets the lady organist by using his wife’s guitar playing skills in the service.  He upsets the congregation by using  bread and grape juice for Communion rather than wafers and wine. His sermons on developments in the Middle East and the need for reconciliation are poorly received and the congregation dwindles away.  He steps outside the church after a troubled service and notices a seagull hovering above him and in a moment of inspiration casts a piece of bread upwards, immediately finding that a flock of gulls descend on the basket and takes the remaining pieces of bread.  He flings the basket up into the air and cries out, “All are welcome!” and as he does so he finds he can’t stop laughing and “at the end of weeks of darkness, he finally saw the light”.

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