A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

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With a title like A Whole Life you’d be forgiven for expecting a much longer book.  It’s the economy of Seethaler’s prose that allows him to fit so much into so few pages (149), and what a beautifully quiet story it is.  Reminiscent in sentiment and pace of that ever popular Williams classic Stoner and comparable in content and tone to Train Dreams by Denis Johnson with a similar seam of sadness weaving through the prose, this is a restrained and unpretentious piece of fiction.

Forest and mountain man Andreas Egger’s life is the one we follow through this miniature epic.  Starting with his attempt to rescue an almost dead local goatherd, Seethaler returns to reveal the beginning and then the rest of Egger’s life with such a deftness and lightness of touch that you almost don’t realise you are reading, it feels as though the story is being orally related, like an old friend is acquainting you with the relatively uneventful tale of a mountain dwelling loner.  And here’s the thing with this book; other than a devastating avalanche and a period of internment in Russia during the war nothing much else of earth shattering consequence happens.  Yet the landscape descriptions and mountain village life portrayed in these pages draws the reader in more than many blockbusting tomes can.

There is also something slightly mystical and ethereal about parts of this book, particularly near the end, which made me think deeply about what it must be like to be old, alone and sometimes confused, how it would be very likely and understandable to start hearing and seeing ghosts from your past.

After living through Egger’s life with him, his choice of retirement abode is unsurprising if a little unorthodox, but absolutely the right place for him to spend his remaining days.  His ending befits his life, and for this I was grateful to Seethaler for not writing Egger an overly dramatic or morose demise; it is a quiet understated end just as he had lived his life.

A Whole Life is beautifully written, beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins and beautifully packaged by Picador (swoon at that cover), I absolutely loved it and I’d like to think you will too.

 

 

(I think that’s 11 sentences – need to get a grip!)

 

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

A “10 sentences or less” busting piece.

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Before I was 10 we moved to a place on the Mediterranean into a huge house that came with my Dad’s job at the time.  Until then my younger sister and I had always shared a bedroom, but this new place was large enough for us to have our own rooms at the top of the house in the attic space where there was also a bathroom, another spare bedroom and access to our 2 roof terraces.  Not long after we moved in, my sister complained of not being happy in her room.  Then she talked of waking in the night with someone holding her hand, but there was never anyone there.  This freaked us both out enough for us to move back downstairs and share a room next to our brother.  Neither of us liked going back up there after that.  I was recently reminded of this episode in my childhood when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  A similar late night hand-holding experience affects one of the main characters when she is feeling particularly vulnerable.

Generally speaking I don’t read creepy books, I’m too easily spooked and I’ll be honest, this story made me feel uneasy at times.  The titular house is unpleasant and designed to confuse, the characters are susceptible to suggestion and disturbance of mind creating an shared experience where both character and reader live through the nightly hauntings and horrors served up by this place.  It’s this psychological element that makes the tale of Dr. Montague and his guests at Hill House, gathered there to investigate and make sense of the other-worldly goings on, all the more disturbing and chilling.  What Jackson achieves with her writing is a feeling of suspense built on the fear and unease her characters sense from the house.  Fragile Theodora seems particularly prone to these perceptions of something ghostly.  The eventual suspicion and distrust that builds between the characters adds to the tension.

This story is similar in feel and sentiment to books by Susan Hill.  Both women are masters at writing about the supernatural in an unsettling, non-violent, non-gory way, leaving the reader to wonder and marvel at how the power of suggestion can unhinge the mind to such an extent.  Reading this book has finally made me realise, the hand of my sister’s experience was probably a figment of her dreams…or was it??

 

The Gigantic Beard that was Evil – Stephen Collins

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Isolation is an odd thing; the loneliness of going unnoticed is equally as isolating as notoriety. Dave experiences both as he leads his lonely, uneventful and clean-shaven life, observing and sketching his neighbours while listening to Eternal Flame by The Bangles on constant loop.  He also knows the loneliness of being different and sticking out when inexplicably unstoppable facial hair starts growing into the evil beard of the title.

Stephen Collins has created a beautifully crafted cautionary tale rooted in the fear society constructs around difference.  Whether that’s anxiety about Dave and his freakish whiskers or the baffling dread of “There”; unvisited by and therefore unknown to residents of orderly “Here” yet identified as a place of chaos and disorder.

This delicately sketched graphic novel imparts deep messages about diversity, intolerance, partiality and suspicion of the unfamiliar.  The artwork is lovely and makes up for the emotions this sad and thought provoking read evokes.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante trans. Ann Goldstein

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The one thing you can often expect from Bildungsroman is little plot and that’s ok if the characters’ journeys are captivating enough to keep your attention from start to finish.  I’m generally a fan of this genre (although I have a secret dislike for Catcher in the Rye – there, I’ve said it!), I’m a patient enough reader not to be troubled by the lack of “action” and I’m very happy witnessing characters develop, grow and learn about themselves.  My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, introduces us to Elena and Lila, friends from an early age, this book charts the ebb and flow of their connection as the girls endure the hardships of post-war Italy and how the social norms in their small community shape their lives and choices – all narrated by Elena.

The thing Ferrante excels at is the detailed and spot-on depiction of the intensity of women’s relationships; mother-daughter and girlfriends.  Elena’s voice in this book, which ends when the girls are 16, was very reminiscent for me of that love/hate emotion and natural competitiveness that springs from close friendship during formative teen years; the realisation that your friend is brighter than you, more beautiful than you, expresses herself better, is more confident around boys, is all-round more popular and it pricks that oddest of mixed feelings, jealousy and admiration.  It either spurs you on to be better or leads you to detest your friend.  Elena feels all of these things towards Lila and sometimes we get a glimpse that Lila also feels jealous of Elena’s good fortune at being able to continue her education when Lila can’t.

Ferrante is not afraid of confronting ugly human behaviour and presenting it with shocking honesty.  The complacent violence towards women and girls in this book is treated with accepted normality as is Elena’s first and unsolicited sexual experience at the hands of the father of a boy in her year at school, but perhaps more shocking to readers could be how Elena feels about and reflects on this episode.

Mostly though, this book is about two girls finding their way in life, making the best choices available to them from very few options in a neighbourhood governed by hierarchy, violence and tradition.

“Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”

 

 

 

 

Beatlebone – Kevin Barry

Warning: I’m going over my 10 sentence limit with this one!

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Kevin Barry’s fictionalised account of John Lennon’s visit to the island he owned in the Irish sea is a work of aural loveliness.  Yes, I did just say “aural” because this piece of writing is an audiological symphony of sounds – music, harmony, silence, screaming, ranting, nature’s melody and the racket in one’s head.  My sensory experience of this book has been very different to other reads. My memory of it is of noise and silence.  Near the start, the Lennon of the book is told to “listen – really listen to fuck’n everything around you”.  It feels like an instruction to the reader as well as the character.  What Lennon really wants to do is to “scream his fucking lungs out” – what I did was open my ears.

This re-imagining of John Lennon’s search for the words and melody to his next piece of work clips along at a pace due to Barry’s lilting poetic style (I either heard the words in my head in a gorgeous Irish twang or the nasally soft scouse Lennon was known for).  This retreat is also supposed to help Lennon to “at last be over himself” and for him to “be that fucking lonely I’ll want to fucking die”.  Although there is a plot, plot is not what this book is about.  It is more an exploration of a myriad emotions, not least abandonment, self loathing and doubt, but set against the bewitchingly described picturesque west of Ireland land- and seascapes Barry so mesmerisingly evokes with his well chosen and clearly much thought through words, the book becomes less of a depressing rant and more a cathartic journey.

Barry also messes with form and structure in this work; it is either set out in volumes with little punctuation or like a script with character “lines”.  Then, just when you think you know where you are, Barry inserts himself into the narrative, taking over several pages to explain his own journey of research to write this book.  It’s a brave move to slot a reportage section into fiction that is rumbling along quite nicely and has the reader in their reading stride.  Somehow it worked for me – I wasn’t put off by it at all, in fact I was struck by the similarities between Barry’s (or the unnamed writer’s) search for answers and his mental state, and the Lennon of the fiction.

I loved this book for lots of reasons, all of which I could ramble on about (music nerds will enjoy spotting Beatles lyrics slotted into the narrative), mainly though I was bowled over by the perfectly chosen turns of phrase which deftly describe a situation, a scene, a character, a sound or a view and quite honestly the hilarious chapter in the pub which turns into some Godawful trip is worth reading the book for on its own.

 

 

 

Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith

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In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.

 

11 sentences – must try harder!

Neues Wilhelm Busch Album – Wilhelm Busch

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Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908) was a German humorist, poet and illustrator.  His wood engraving illustrations satirised almost all parts of society but particularly Catholicism, religion in general, morality and everyday life in towns and villages across Germany.  This beautiful anthology belonging to my mother, was given to her by a neighbour when she was 12.  It was a firm feature of my own childhood.  I vividly remember my sister and I leafing through the fine pages fascinated and vaguely disturbed in equal measure, because like Grimm’s fairy stories, some of Busch’s cautionary tales end badly for his characters.

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Busch is best remembered for Max and Moritz the cheeky twosome who terrorise hardworking folk in their local community.  This collection opens with the Max and Moritz series “Eine Bubengescichte in sieben Streichen”  my translation “A rogue’s story in seven pranks” This is Dennis the Menace in double.  Each “Streich” shows the boys carrying out pranks ranging from stealing cooked chickens, loading their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder or stuffing beetles under an elderly gent’s bedclothes.

All pretty fun and seemingly harmless until the last prank.  After slicing rips into a farmer’s corn sacks, the farmer catches them and stuffs them into a bag.

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The farmer takes them to the miller who promptly tips them into his mill, grinding them into small pieces.

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The ground up bits of Max and Mortiz are gobbled up by the ducks.  A really gruesome end.

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Busch ends the seventh prank with the villagers rejoicing at the demise of the young irritants!

wp-1448828219987.jpegOther everyday farcical gems include the warring neighbours who beat the living daylights out of each other; the miller’s daughter who dispatches 3 thieves in grim fashion; the couple who trash their house while chasing a mouse; the guy driven to distraction by his toothache.

The series called The holy Antony of Padua told over 10 chapters guides us through this priest’s life from birth to arrival at the pearly gates all the while mocking the church and its hypocritical practises.

Most of the illustrated stories are accompanied with verse, which honestly I sometimes found tricky to make out.  This is due to the typeface which is a form of old German handwriting style called Suetterlin – really tricky to work out sometimes; even more difficult in Busch’s original hand (see below).  This is featured later in the book which covers his life, career and includes prints of his sketches in progress.  There is also some of his longer stories at the back of the album.

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His illustrations are delightful if slightly grotesque.  The characters are either portly with rosy cheeks and bulbous noses or they are skinny and wiry and frankly not to be trusted.  The violence is slapstick.  There’s always someone being bashed with a broom, falling through the floor or tripping and injuring themselves in some foolish act.  All really good fun.

This is a beautiful anthology of a little known commentator of life in late 19th century Germany.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into it again after years of having forgotten all about it.

Thanks to my mum for letting me borrow it!

I read this for German Literature Month

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on being addicted to books

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