Tag: Anthea Bell

Book notes: Politycki, Skloot, Langford & Grant

Matthias Politycki, Next World Novella (2009/11)

Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella (translated from the German by Anthea Bell) is the latest title from Peirene Press, which would be enough on its own to interest me in reading the book, as I’ve enjoyed all their previous selections. Add to this that it’s a tale with shifting realities, and my interest only increases. Having read it now, though, it didn’t quite work for me, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on why.

Academic Hinrich Schepp finds that his wife Doro has died at her desk, where she has apparently been editing the attempt at a novel that he abandoned years before. Reading the manuscript, Schepp discovers that Doro’s edits constitute a commentary on their marriage, and that his wife was far from as content as he’d assumed.

The beginning of Next World Novella is especially potent, as the reader is a fraction behind Schepp in realising that Doro has died, and anticipates the jolt which is to come. There’s also effective interplay between the gradual unfurling of Doro’s true feelings and Schepp’s inability/reluctance to perceive the truth (e.g. he refuses to acknowledge the extent to which his abandoned novel reflected his own life). Yet I finished the book feeling that I hadn’t quite grasped something about it, and I can’t put into words what that might be. Next World Novella is well worth a look, though.

Interview with Matthias Politycki (Worlds Without Borders)
Next World Novella elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Cardigangirlverity; The Independent.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010)

A brilliant fusion of biography, social history, and history of science, that tells a fascinating story. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951; as with other cancer patients at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, a sample of the cells from Henrietta’s tumour was taken, without her knowledge, for research purposes. Those cells were the origin of the HeLa cell line, the first human one to be propagated successfully in the lab (‘immortal’ because they can divide indefinitely in culture). Henrietta’s cells facilitated many medical advances, but it was twenty years before her family even learnt that a sample had been taken.

Remarkable as this story is, it is Skloot’s treatment of it that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She moves back and forth between time periods and perspectives, weaving together details  of Henrietta’s and her family’s lives; the wider social and scientific contexts; the ethical issues raised by Henrietta’s story; and Skloot’s own experiences meeting and interviewing the Lacks family. There’s great breadth to the material, and Skloot’s control of it is superb. What an engrossing read.

Rebecca Skloot’s website
Interview with Skloot (Wellcome Trust)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elsewhere: SomeBeans; Savidge Reads; Take Me Away; Lovely Treez Reads.

David Langford and John Grant, Earthdoom! (1987/2003)

A gloriously over-the-top spoof disaster novel featuring all manner of world-ending phenomena which appear on the scene in quick succession: a spacecraft on a collision course with Earth; an antimatter comet on a collision course with Earth; invading aliens; rabid lemmings; the Loch Ness Monster; a time-travelling Hitler who takes advantage of the handy cloning technology he finds on a Devon farm; sentient superglue… You get the idea.

Langford and Grant relentlessly send up the conventions of the disaster novel, with their cast of gung-ho male scientists and impossibly-attractive-yet-brilliant-except-when-the-guys-need-to-show-how-much-better-they-are female scientists; the plot contrivances which are eventually abandoned altogether when it suits; the characters’ helpful-for-the-reader recapping things they already know; and the prose. For example:

Jeb’s [the Devonian farmer] words rang hollow in his ears, not merely because in these grim days his accent was failing to convince even himself. Ambledyke Farmhouse was sealed against the horrors outside, its boarded-up windows blind as proofreaders’ eyyes. The inner dimness throbbed with a stench of ancient, decaying pizza. (p. 121)

Great stuff.

David Langford’s website
John Grant’s website

Book notes: Preussler, Glattauer, Bauer

Otfried Preussler, Krabat (1971/2)

First published in English under the title The Satanic Mill, this German children’s classic (translated by Anthea Bell) has now been reissued under its original title as part of the Library of Lost Books. It is the story of Krabat, a boy in 16th-century Saxony, who investigates a strange mill and finds himself compelled to become the miller’s apprentice, working alongside his eleven journeymen. The Master teaches his journeymen dark magic, but at a price: every New Year’s Eve, one of them will die.

Some children’s books can, of course, be well appreciated when one reads them as an adult; but I find myself wishing that I’d read Krabat as a child, because I can imagine how much stronger the sense of discovery and excitement would have been. Even so, I very much enjoyed Preussler’s crisply-told tale. What’s particularly striking is how much the book doesn’t reveal; there’s very little about Krabat’s life before the mill, and much about the miller and his powers is also left open to interpretation. As a result, the air of mystery and strangeness around the book never goes away; I was left guessing what would happen up to the very last page – there is no sense in this novel that a happy ending is guaranteed.

Otfried Preussler’s website
Publisher Scott Pack blogs about the book

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (2006/11)

It starts simply enough: Emmi Rothner tries to cancel a magazine subscription, but mistypes the address and her email ends up in Leo Leike’s inbox. He notifies her of the mistake, and all is forgotten until, months later, Leo receives Emmi’s automated Christmas message and yet another email meant for the magazine. So begins an intimate email correspondence underpinned by something that may yet turn out to be love.

Love Virtually is told entirely through the medium of Emmi’s and Leo’s emails (in a nice touch, the novel uses  two translators – Katharina Bielenberg and Jame Bulloch, who are a married couple  – each working on the messages of one protagonist). At first, I was unsure of this device, as, by their nature, such correspondences are always going to be more interesting for the participants than for outside observers. And, sure enough, there were times when the tone of the emails – enticingly drawn-out for Leo and Emmi, but rather long-winded for this reader – tried my patience.

But, as I got further in (and the novel was swift and snappy enough that this didn’t take long), I warmed to the ebb and flow of the exchange, which is a kind of courtship dance that creates personae for the two correspondents whilst occasionally offering glimpses of the real characters underneath. Both protagonists could gain or lose from the dialogue: Leo is single, though the sparks of his recently-ended relationship have not yet burnt out entirely; Emmi is married with children, but seems to drive the correspondence more than Leo, as it provides her with something that her existing relationship does not. Whatever reservations I might have had towards the beginning, by the end of Love Virtually I was gripped, wanting to know what happened. The ending is judged perfectly, and paves the way for the sequel, which will receive its English-language publication later in the year.

Publishers’ interview with the translators
Love Virtually reviewed elsewhere: Vulpes Libris; Book Monkey; The Complete Review.

Belinda Bauer, Blacklands (2010)

My first choice for the Great Transworld Crime Caper – not that there’s much of the caper about this book – I first came across Blacklands as one of last year’s TV Book Club choices. I didn’t read it at the time, but I should have, because I missed a gem. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb is preoccupied with finding the body of his uncle Billy, assumed to have been murdered as a child. Steven keeps digging on Exmoor, but without success; in desperation, he writes a letter to convicted child-killer Arnold Avery (one of whose victims is thought to be Billy)) asking where his uncle’s body is – and a game of cat and mouse begins.

What makes Blacklands work so well is Bauer’s sharply observant eye, and the careful positioning of Steven’s and Avery’s correspondence (and the search for Billy’s body) in her characters’ lives. Steven’s Nan – Billy’s mother – is forever scarred by the loss of her son (‘underneath she would always be Poor Mrs Peters’, [p. 8]) , which she refuses to accept. This has translated into a fractured household; Steven’s quest to find Billy is partly an attempt to patch up his family, but also his way of bringing purpose to a life beset by troubles at school as well as home.

For Avery, Steven’s letters also bring a sense of purpose and hope, though a much more chilling one – particularly after an inadvertent reflection in a photograph taken by Steven reveals to Avery that his correspondent is a child. Bauer opens enough of a window on to Avery’s mind to make our visits there deeply disturbing, but not so much that we lose sight of the monster he is. The author also builds tension very effectively as the novel progresses. Blacklands is a difficult read at times, but ultimately I found it a rewarding one.

Belinda Bauer’s website
Blacklands reviewed elsewhere: It’s a Crime!; Petrona; Catherine, Caffeinated.

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