CategoryNon-Fiction

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland

Originally published in French in 1977, this is a travelogue by Togolese writer Tété-Michel Kpomassie (translated by James Kirkup). As a teenager in the 1950s, he is (reluctantly) about to be initiated into a snake cult when he reads a book about Greenland. This place is beyond anything he has experienced or can imagine, but there will be no snakes – and, he reads, “the child is king, free from all traditional and family restraint”. This is enough to make the young Kpomassie resolve to travel to Greenland, even though it means running away from home.

Kpomassie’s journey to Greenland is an epic tale in itself. It takes six years for him to earn enough money to leave Africa, followed by a spell working in Paris before he finally reaches his destination. He stands out, not just for his skin colour but also his height (hence he’s nicknamed Michel the Giant). This will be a two-way meeting of cultures: “I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered.”

Kpomassie’s book is a fascinating account of his travels. There are telling details, such as the cinema that stops foreign films every ten minutes to explain the action to the Inuit audience, because only Danish subtitles are available. These episodes are mixed with Kpomassie’s broader reflections on the people he encounters. His openness and willingness to meet Greenland on its own terms are what make Michel the Giant so engaging for me.

Published by Penguin Modern Classics.

And Other Stories: Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs by Gerald Murnane

My introduction to Gerald Murnane was his debut novel Tamarisk Row, which I loved for the way it depicted childhood imagination and the sense of strangeness hidden within the everyday. Murnane’s 2005 essay collection Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs came as part of my And Other Stories subscription, and it has proven an ideal follow-up to Tamarisk Row. I’ve valued it for the chance to spend time in the author’s world. 

The essays in this collection gave me some insight into how Murnane perceives the world. For example, the young protagonist of Tamarisk Row would imagine whole worlds in the abstract patterns of light through glass. It came as no surprise to discover that, when Murnane played horse-racing games with marbles, he would focus on the patterns created out of each small movement. He also mentions a liking of charts and diagrams: some of his essays feel like diagrams put into words, as they circle back over images and memories. 

Murnane’s writing often seems to return to landscapes, but landscapes of the mind, imagined grasslands or plains. As he puts it in ‘Birds of the Puszta‘:

Plains looked simple but were not so. The grass leaning in the wind was all that could be seen of plains, but under the grass were insects and spiders and frogs and snakes – and ground-dwelling birds. I thought of plains whenever I wanted to think of something unremarkable at first sight but concealing much of meaning. And yet plains deserved, perhaps, not to be inspected closely. A pipit, crouched over its eggs in the shadow of a tussock, was the colour of dull grass. I was a boy who delighted in finding what was meant to remain hidden, but I was also a boy who liked to think of lost kingdoms.

Murnane’s work keeps evoking for me a sense of “lost kingdoms”, imaginative spaces hidden just out of sight. When I finished Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, I had been changed by it: when I looked around at the world, something felt different. 

Europe Readr

Today’s post is about a new international literature project that has been brought to my attention. Europe Readr was launched in July by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU Council. The website is a virtual library with 27 free books (one for each EU Member State) available in the original language and English translation.

The selection is themed “The Future of Living”, and aims to offer a range of perspectives on contemporary issues of sustainability and inclusion. The 27 titles, which are available to read until 31 December, are:

Besides the website, Europe Readr is setting up public reading spaces (“reading pavilions”) in cities around the world. Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network is also interviewing the 27 authors in an ongoing series of podcasts.

All in all, Europe Readr looks an exciting project, and I’d like to thank them for getting in touch.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

Three books: Pheby, Coleman, Shanbhag

It’s time for another trio of reviews that were first posted on my Instagram.

Alex Pheby, Lucia (2018)

I have quite a few unread Galley Beggar Press books, and I was in the mood to start changing that. So I picked up Lucia by Alex Pheby, which won the Republic of Consciousness Prize a couple of years ago. ⁣

This novel concerns Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know much about her, beyond what it says in the cover blurb: she was a talented dancer, spent her last 30 years in an asylum, and most contemporary references to her have been lost to history. ⁣

Pheby confronts head-on the problems of what it means to write a real life into fiction. The structure is fragmented, with fragments written from a variety of viewpoints – this is a novel told around and to Lucia, not by her. Interspersed between chapters are sequences describing an Egyptian archaeological dig, and the process of mummification – the implication being that the act of writing about Lucia is a similar disturbance. ⁣

Much of what happens in the novel is traumatic for Lucia, and this is uncomfortable to read, as it should be. Overall, I found this book a powerful reading experience, and I appreciated that Pheby made the problem of what he was doing part of the novel itself. ⁣

Flynn Coleman, A Human Algorithm (2019)

This book is a look at some of the issues around artificial intelligence. Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney, and her book is very much focused on the ethical implications of AI and what it might mean for us as humans. ⁣⁣

⁣⁣This is not a subject I know much about, and I appreciate that Coleman is posing questions at least as much as trying to come up with answers – the book seems meant as a starting point for a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. ⁣⁣⁣

It seems to me that Coleman is pretty even-handed in considering both the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI. She’s clear, though, that it’s urgent for us to be thinking about issues such as how we might instil morals into machines (and whose morals they should be), because the technology will continue to develop in any case. ⁣⁣⁣

I like the range of Coleman’s book, and it left me with a lot to think about, which is what I wanted most of all from it. If the subject piques your interest, A Human Algorithm is well worth your time.

Published by Melville House UK.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perar (2017)

The narrator of this short novel is a director of his family’s spice business in Bangalore, though it’s so successful that he doesn’t need to do any work. His uncle built the firm up, transforming the family’s fortunes in the process – though money has not solved all their problems. ⁣

The narrator structures his story around the hierarchy of his household, with his uncle at the top and himself somewhere towards the bottom. This has the effect of making the novel feel like a series of anecdotes, and there are some engaging episodes, such as the family’s attempts to deal with an ant infestation in their old shack. But this book is more than a yarn: the narrator is not telling us everything. ⁣

His wife, Anita, is often at odds with the rest of the family – she wasn’t too happy to discover that her husband earned no money for himself, for example. The particular incident on which the book pivots is when a woman arrives at the house asking to speak to the uncle, and is summarily sent away by the narrator’s mother. Anita is the only family member who feels the woman was treated badly, and tells her husband that he should have intervened. The ramifications of this play out across the novel. ⁣

Within the book, “ghachar ghochar” is a phrase invented by Anita to mean “hopelessly tangled up”. That’s what the narrator comes to feel his life is like, and with good reason. Vivek Shanbhag examines the implications of his characters looking away from what they don’t want to see. ⁣

Published by Faber & Faber.

⁣⁣⁣

Blog tour: Launch titles from V&Q Books

My post today is part of a blog tour for V&Q Books, the new English-language imprint from the German publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint is headed by the translator Katy Derbyshire, and is dedicated to writing from Germany. It’s not necessarily going to be limited to books translated from German, although the first ones are. V&Q offered me review copies of their first three titles, and I take a look at each below…

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Sandra Hoffmann, Paula (2017)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

Paula begins like this:

We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet.

This autobiographical work explores the effects such a deliberate silence may have on a family. The young Sandra Hoffmann knew that she and her mother looked different from other people in her village – darker-skinned – but she didn’t know who her grandfather was. Her grandmother Paula, a staunch Catholic, refused to say.

This isn’t a story of Hoffmann discovering her grandfather’s identity. It’s a study of the gaps left behind and what might fill them. Hoffmann goes over the many photographs that Paula left behind, and imagines the scenes and people in them.

The silence – the schweigen – permeates the book, spreading through its long passages. The oppressive effects of the silence on family life, in Hoffmann’s childhood and down the years, are vividly conveyed.

Lucy Fricke, Daughters (2018)
Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe (2020)

Daughters is the story of two women – old friends – trying to find their place in life at age forty, and to deal with the loss of a father-figure.

For Martha, this loss is imminent: her father has booked an appointment for a one-way journey to Switzerland, and wants her to drive him. Betty wants to visit Rome to find the grave, not of her biological father (with whom she has little to do), but an ex-partner of her mother’s, an Italian she remembers as “the Trombonist”. Martha and Betty embark on a road trip across Europe with these intentions in mind. But both of them will find that the situation is not as they imagined, and their relationships will be tested.

Lucy Fricke’s novel is full of wry humour that makes it a pleasure to read:

We were the daughters of fathers who’d only found time to talk to us after they’d retired. We explained the internet to them and they explained the weather. Their love came so late that we barely knew what to do with it. We just accepted it with gratitude. But we had little to give, and nothing at all to give back.

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is wonderful: so often, I found myself stopping at a striking turn of phrase. The plot veers off in unexpected directions… This book is a joy.

Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century (2018)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

This non-fiction volume is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner”. Grabner (1911-76) was a writer, albeit an obscure one – Francis Nenik says that he wanted to write about a forgotten author, and there was barely anything about Grabner online at the time he looked.

The reason Grabner’s life is described as absurd has to do, I think, with its apparent contradictions. He was a committed young communist who ended up being awarded an Iron Cross by Germany for his military service. He was director of a steelworks in the GDR whose writing was banned.

As with Fricke’s book, there’s a wonderfully wry undercurrent – a fine translation by Katy Derbyshire:

And Hasso Grabner? Not only is he part of the grotesque named history and always precisely where it is being made; he is also co-writing it, even though he doesn’t know the script, and history is more than slippery, what with it only ever coming about when it’s already happened…

You can watch a reading from Journey through a Tragicomic Century here.

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All in all, this set of books is a strong start for V&Q Books (I like their series cover design as well). I look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

A Silent Fury – Yuri Herrera

“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

Yuri Herrera, A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire (2018)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

It’s July, which means Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard from Caravana de recuerdos. Today I’m returning to Yuri Herrera, who wrote one of my very favourite novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World. His latest book is a non-fiction account of a tragedy that took place in his hometown of Pachuca, Mexico.

On 10 May 1920, there was a fire in the El Bordo mine. After a short period of evacuation, the authorities decided there was no possibility that anyone else trapped in the mine could have survived, and the shafts were sealed. When they were reopened, 87 bodies were removed from the mine, and seven other men found in there were still alive. The subsequent report exonerated the authorities of all blame, and even suggested that the miners might have been at fault.

Herrera’s project in this book is not so much about telling the story of the fire – though he does that in part, and it’s vivid and harrowing. He is most focused on the historical documents: the case file and newspaper reports. Herrera aims to show how the victims, survivors and their families have been obscured by the official record.

Sometimes this becomes evident because the record does not acknowledge that these are human lives which were lost. Sometimes it’s the contradictions which draw the investigators’ focus into question. Sometimes people were spoken for by others, such as the female relatives who had to give statements of their relationship to the deceased in order to apply for compensation. These statements mostly “appear only in the voice of some court clerk who interprets, edits, formalizes” – and they all had to be witnessed by a man.

The English title A Silent Fury is well chosen. It appears in the text when Herrera is describing an official photograph of the survivors:

They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.

The “silent fury” is then the kind of reaction that doesn’t appear in the official record, at least not without an act of recovery like this book. It’s also there in Herrera’s writing, a controlled anger verging on sarcasm, which is one of the powerful qualities of Lisa Dillman’s translation.

In some ways, A Silent Fury reminds me of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in that both books confront the question of how to put a human disaster into words, and the implications of doing so. The resulting work brings the victims of the El Bordo fire into focus, allows them to be seen.

Published by And Other Stories.

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: Langley and Hildyard

Patrick Langley, Arkady (2018)

I’m starting Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with the first debut that Fitzcarraldo published: Patrick Langley’s novel Arkady. It’s told as a series of episodes from the lives of Jackson and Frank, brothers on the margins of an austerity-ravaged society that feels only a few steps away from now. They find an abandoned canal boat that they name Arkady. The brothers then have a chance to leave their city and look for a new life.

What really makes Arkady work for me is its impressionistic quality. It is tempting to read the brothers’ city as being London, but really it’s not a place with a precise geography. The brothers experience their environment as an abstract urban landscape, and that’s how Langley makes us see it. That background makes the relationship between Frank and Jackson all the more vivid. Their bond is one thing that might weather the storms life throws at them, in a strikingly affecting piece of work.

Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (2017)

This book is an essay in trying to square the human sense of being a physical-bodied individual with the fact of being embedded in an ecosystem. Daisy Hildyard refers to the latter as “having a second body”, one that reaches around the world. ⁣

Hildyard draws together science, literature (this book gave me a new perspective on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in particular) and personal experience. She argues that it’s difficult for us to imagine the individual and the global scale at the same time, unless perhaps nature invades your personal space, as when Hildyard’s house is flooded in the book’s final chapter.

I find myself agreeing with her on that – it has been my experience, in the past and even during the reading of this book. So The Second Body is a challenge: to think differently. It will stay with me for some time. ⁣

My favourite books read in 2019

The end of the year has come around again, so it’s time to look back. Going through my list of books read this year has brought back some happy memories, so here are my twelve favourites. As ever, the list is in rough descending order of enjoyment, but they’re all warmly recommended.

12. The Perseverance (2019) by Raymond Antrobus

I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of poetry this year. Antrobus’ highly personal collection – which explores themes of language, communication and family relationships – stood out to me. A worthy winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

11. Tamarisk Row (1974) by Gerald Murnane

I’ve never read a novel that evokes childhood imagination quite like this. A boy in 1940s Australia imagines hidden worlds in the abstract patterns of everyday reality (such as the play of light through glass). The raw, deep feelings of growing up are made vertiginous in Murnane’s prose.

10. Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine

A collection of personal essays in which the act of writing seems at least as important to the writer as what she’s writing about. Pine is unflinching as she explores issues of the (her) family, body and self. The sense is that she’s taking the stuff of her life apart and building it anew.

9. The Years (2008) by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (2017)

An account of the mid-to-late 20th century whose writing stopped me in my tracks. The narrator’s personal history plays out against and within the broader passage of time. I was particularly struck by the way the text changes shape to reflect different ways of knowing and remembering – stories giving way to fragments of information.

8. The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill

Possibly the book that was the most pure fun to read this year. The Drover’s Wives consists of a classic Australian short story retold in 101 different ways, from ‘Hemingwayesque’ to ‘A 1980s Computer Game’ and even a chart of paint swatches. O’Neill brings out different sides to the original story, and though there’s a lot to smile about, there are some poignant moments too.

7. The Cheffe (2016) by Marie NDiaye
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

The very last book I read before compiling this list, but one that made a considerable impression. It’s the tale of an elusive culinary genius through the eyes of a former employee who thinks he has insight into her that may be the product of obsession. The ‘double remove’ between us and the Cheffe makes the novel so tantalising.

6. Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson (2018)

Nothomb takes my ‘should have read this author sooner’ slot for the year. This novel is a short, sharp, 360-degree view of its protagonist’s female relationships, from her jealous mother to the assistant professor who may not be as much of a friend as she appears.

5. Transfer Window (2017) by Maria Gerhardt
Translated from the Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (2019)

Talking of short and sharp… This is the piercing portrait of a terminally ill young woman who has moved to a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, recently turned into a hospice. Transfer Window is harrowing in its sense of life cut short. Inside the hospice, the protagonist’s old life slips away: for everyone outside, life goes on.

4. The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) by Irmgard Keun
Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum (2002)

Doris is a secretary with dreams of being a star; she leaves her job and travels to Berlin, where she finds that life’s pendulum may swing in a different direction without warning. Doris’s voice is compelling as the world shifts around her. There are moments of joy, but also signs of the darkness that was to come – signs that seem all the more pronounced from this historical distance.

3. Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (2019)

The final part of Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, and my personal favourite. We follow a version (or versions) of the author on a trip to Sardinia, through four sections written in different styles. The question becomes, can we trust the narrator to be the same individual throughout? The sense of a single coherent ‘I’ grows ever more fragile.

2. Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford

A novel of genuine strangeness that gains power from refusing to explain itself. Ada and her father heal people, but exactly what they do (or even what they are) is a mystery to us. When Ada falls in love with one of her “Cures”, this threatens to upend her entire existence… and that core of mystery gnaws away all the while.

1. Berg (1964) by Ann Quin

I first heard about this novel ten years before reading it, and eventually got to it at just the right time. I was expecting the prose to require some concentration, but I wasn’t expecting the book to be so funny. Quin’s hapless protagonist goes to the seaside intending to kill his father in revenge, but finds he can’t actually go through with it. Events descend into outright farce… and I found a new book to treasure.

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So, that was my 2019. How was your reading year?

If you’d like to catch up on previous yearly round-up, they’re here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next year on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or here.

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