Category Archives: Books for travelling with

Affections – Rodrigo Hasbún trans. Sophie Hughes

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I’ve just spent a tense couple of days with this book.  Tension is definitely the overriding emotion I take from this compact family saga.  I’m not very good with any sort of familial stress – I don’t cope too well with it, so the tensions between the three sisters in this story and the strain between each of them and their father as well as the mounting political hostility in revolutionary Bolivia, put me on edge.

Hasbún’s fictional account of the Ertl family’s experiences in La Paz, Bolivia isn’t a rip-roaring adventure tale, although they are not a straightforward family by any means, instead he tells their less than ordinary story with an understated air of something falling apart until it’s beyond repair.  German Hans Ertl was a explorer and legendary cameraman, famed for filming Nazi propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl.  He fled Germany after the war.  This book starts shortly after his wife and daughters join him in South America in the early 1950s.  Hasbún chronicles their individual stories and a basic history of revolution in Bolivia through a series of commentaries and accounts told by various characters in and around the family.  As the book progresses it is clear that eldest daughter Monika’s radicalisation and involvement in the Marxist guerrilla movement still just about intact and operating in difficult conditions post Che Guevara’s capture, torture and murder, is central to the story and ultimately the fate of the family.  Monika’s experiences when accompanying her father on a filming expedition in the jungle and her failed marriage into an old German mining family, part of the rising Bolivian expat elite, drive her underground and earns her the title of “Che Guevara’s avenger.”

This is fiction short on factual explanations of the Ertl family’s back story.  There is also no information relating to South American politics or the reasons for the rise in post-war Marxist revolutions and guerrilla skirmishes in countries like Bolivia.  Hasbún does not expand on Cuban and Russian involvement in funding and training radicals, nor does he elaborate on the CIA bankrolling hit squads and far reaching spy networks to stamp out any sign of communism in South America.  I had to do my own background reading to fill in some gaps.  If you like your fiction complete with every factual detail ticked off, you may find this book frustrating.  It’s not Hasbún’s intention to give us a history lesson.  What his narrative suggests and the structure of this novel alludes to is a family never quite unified and now in free-fall.  The eventual geographic dislocation of the Ertl family members and the gaping differences in their values mirrors the national political turmoil and divisions amongst Bolivia’s people.

This is a book about being an outsider; an outsider in your birth country, an outsider in your adopted country and an outsider in your own family.   What Hasbún does so brilliantly is expose how the family members are never quite accepted in their chosen employment or choice of home and cause. On page 13 alone there are two sentences demonstrating two types of isolation:

“La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world.”

“With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa.”

Hasbún deftly highlights the extremes of values and morals in one family unit by drawing the readers attention to Monika’s actions as antithesis to her father’s notoriety as they act in polar opposite political systems.  There are also flashes of violence and gore, nothing too extreme and often mentioned in passing, just to remind us how tough, dangerous and perilous it is to fight for your cause.  And we don’t only witness conflict on a macro level, Hasbrún also shows us internal strife.  Monika is only one of several conflicted characters; showing utter disdain for her father and what he stands for while idolising him and desperate for his approval.  In such a short narrative he’s invaded our consciousness with all of this information.  Clever.

If you are interested in stories about how our actions affect the lives of others and how those actions can ripple through time or stories about how family members can have opposing values despite having the same experiences or fiction based on fact where not every detail is set out for you so you can investigate further at your leisure, then I absolutely recommend this book to you.  It’s an elegantly put together family chronicle and beautifully translated.  I found it fascinating and a pleasure to read, despite the family tensions putting me on edge.

 

Tony has tipped this book for The Man International Booker Prize long list

Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction

Grant has reviewed this book too

So has Jacqui

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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!)

 

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.

 

 

 

The Go-Between – LP Hartley

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Last year I read a book called The White Goddess: An Encounter.  A memoir by Simon Gough, nephew of Robert Graves, about his experiences in Majorca in his late teens.  When I started reading The Go-Between, it felt very familiar.  There are many similarities between the books, including inexperience and youth, broken trust and the loss of innocence during the heat of summer.

Leo Colston is in his 60s sometime in the 1950s.  He finds a box of things in his attic.  The bits and pieces in the box bring forth a memory of a summer spent at the house of an upper class school friend in Norfolk.  The memories crash over him like waves as he tries to purge himself of this sad episode of his youth.  Leo is an outsider at his school, overlooked by most until his black magic tricks coincidentally come good and increase his popularity overnight.  He suddenly has confidence in himself and confidence in his mystic qualities.  Although it means leaving his mother for most of the summer, Leo accepts an invitation to spend time at his school friend’s house during the holidays.  Leo is wholly unprepared for his visit to Brandham Hall in the summer of 1900.  There is a heat wave and he only has heavy winter clothing with him, he comes from a different class, he is not used to spending time with so many people and he obviously stands out.

At Brandham Leo meets his friend’s older sister Marian who is expected to marry Viscount Winlove, the local aristocrat recently home from the Boer war, but disfigured after a horrific war wound.  Both are kind to Leo and Marian understands his embarrassment, recognising his discomfort in his inappropriate clothes.  She takes him to Norwich to shop for new ones.  He instantly feels like he fits in wearing his new outfits, he is no longer the outsider.  He idolises Marian, just like Simon idolises Margot in The White Goddess.  When his friend falls ill and can’t play out, Leo explores the area.  He becomes friendly with local farmer Ted Burgess who he once saw swimming in the local river.  Ted entrusts Leo with notes to give to Marian telling him they are about business.  He becomes their messenger.  They call him their postman.  Subconsciously, Leo knows the notes are not about business, but he continues to deliver the letters because he trusts Marian.  He is at the cusp of puberty, his exploration of the local countryside mirrors his need to explore his feelings about growing up.  He likes Ted, but knows he is in a different class to Marian, he is fascinated by his masculinity and confidence and as a boy without a father Ted becomes a source of information.  He comes to admire Ted to such an extent that when the Brandham guests play cricket against the villagers, Leo is torn between wanting the house guests to win and wanting Ted to score the winning runs for his team.

The Go-Between is a beautifully written work of secrecy, deception, underhandedness and the typical British stiff upper lip.  It is richly descriptive and vivid.  Hartley evokes the heat and colours of the countryside until you feel you are walking with Leo through the dells of Brandham sweating in the summer heat.  Leo is a snob, but he is also a boy who knows no better and is looking for answers from those older and wiser than him.  They let him down during his summer in Norfolk; he puts his trust in them and they deceive him.  It is an episode that effects the course of his life.  I felt for Leo as he languished in that limbo between child and adult; too young to fully comprehend what is going on but old enough to know something is up.  There are some lovely passages and wonderful lines that say so much more than the few words that make them.  I loved The Go-Between for its depth and the layers of meaning, for Leo’s innocence and Marian and Ted’s lack of innocence and the brazenness of their relationship.  This would be a fabulous novel for a holiday and perfect to read in the sultry heat of summer.

The White Goddess: An Encounter – Simon Gough

the white goddessAbout two years after finishing university, once Mr FH and I had proper jobs that paid enough to get us off the bread line, we did something we’d never done before and have not done since; we went on a package holiday.  To Majorca.  It was one of those pot luck affairs, “assign on arrival” I think they call it, basically we didn’t know where we were staying.  Luckily for us the reps on the coach from Palma airport didn’t ask us to alight at Magaluf.  Despite still being in our 20’s we could see it wasn’t for us.   Further around the coast was our final destination.  A resort called Peguera, which to my memory was particularly favoured by German tourists, and the local eateries definitely pandered to their palates; Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and even Eisbein (pigs trotters – I kid you not) were on the menus at the restaurants on the strip.  We had a cute little ground floor apartment with a patio and spent a lovely week tearing around the island in a hired Peugeot 106 trying to avoid being maimed on the winding Majorcan roads frequented by crazy locals.  One of our excursions was to Deya, a tiny coastal village on the west side of the island.  We wanted to visit the place where poet and writer Robert Graves lived and worked for most of his life, he is also buried there, as is his wife.  There is no denying, it is a beautiful hamlet in an idyllic setting which undoubtedly provided a sanctuary for him to write.  But my abiding memory is that Deya was crawling with tourists, like us.  The locals were unfriendly, not without reason I guess and it was altogether slightly disappointing.  I think I built up my expectations and hoped to feel some of the mysticism and poetic magic that is supposed to surround the place, and I just didn’t.  We had a very nice menu del dia before taking our lives into our hands again, en route to some other hamlet.  I know what you are thinking…you are wondering where this is leading.   Here it comes.

I thought of this holiday while reading The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough, the grand-nephew of Robert Graves, who incidentally was educated right here in my local town at the big scary private school on the hill.  In the author’s own words from his forward, this book is:

..a fragment of autobiography written in narrative form in order to breathe new lfe into a remarkable story which occured over fifty years ago..

So, neither completely fact, nor completely fiction, more of a mash-up of the two and it really is remarkable.  At the beginning we meet Simon in 1989, he is an antiquarian book dealer in his 40’s mulling over a life-threatening illness and the prospect of returning to Majorca for the first time in over 25 years.

…The past was not to be trifled with..My past had haunted me for so long that if I didn’t attempt to return to it now – lay bare the ruins which had become the foundations of the rest of my life, I’d not only have denied its existence, but denied my own…

That passage gives you a flavour of the way this book is written; in a slightly melodramatic tone.  Don’t let that put you off because Gough has a gift for description and although sometimes a bit long-winded and on occasion, laboured, his writing is wonderfully lyrical and almost mesmerising.

The story revolves around Simon’s visits to Graves’ house in Majorca when he was 10 and 17/18.  On his first visit he is with his highly strung and newly divorced mother.  At the Graves’ household he finds the freedom to roam, releasing him from the stifling grip of his mother and the stuffy English school he attends back home.  The lifestyle in Deya is bohemian, the larger-than-life Graves is surrounded by family and other admiring artists. Simon feels safe and at home and soon makes great friends with his Grand-Uncle.

When he returns aged 17 there is a new member of the inner circle.  24 year old Margot is Robert’s muse.  He believes she is the reincarnation of an ancient goddess.  The muse was very important to Robert’s work and although not his first, Margot seemed to have a profound affect on his writing.  Margot and Robert’s first meeting is described as causing the following reaction:

…his hair stood on end and he felt as though he were having a heart attack or a stroke or something because shards of words…and fragments of poems he’d already written in the future…started to flash through his brain like missiles.  He said that his head was full of chaos, as if he’d broken through to a new universe.. 

Margot is beautiful, distant, indifferent and almost exotic.  Simon is in awe of her as though she really were the mythical creature she is supposed to be, he feels an overwhelming magnetic attraction to her and Margot is somehow drawn to Simon, trusts him, befriends him and finds an ally in him, which of course is his undoing.

The story shifts to Madrid, where Margot goes for a rest from Robert and Simon to study.  Simon’s loyalties are torn between the two, he has promised Robert to look after Margot, yet Margot makes him promise not to tell Robert her address, she refuses to write to him and Simon knows how this must be affecting Robert’s writing.  Madrid is where things go horribly wrong and Simon eventually realises his part in the final betrayal.

This book feels like catharsis fiction (or Auto-bi-fantasy, as the author calls it), as though Simon Gough needs to get it all off his chest, every last detail.  And there is a lot of detail and minute description in The White Goddess.  Having said that, it is captivating and touches on themes of loyalty, family and personal freedom.  Gough builds the tension effectively, to the point where I was gritting my teeth and muttering at Simon, wondering why he couldn’t see what was going on.  I knew things couldn’t end well, because quite early on I had that feeling of foreboding.  The way Gough describes his teenage self, so passionate and infatuated, self-centred and blind with love is true to the maniacal fever that comes over you as a teenager, desperately in love for the first time.

Readers who pop by frequently will know how much I love a bit of landscape in literature, and there is plenty in The White Goddess with descriptions of the winding roads I mentioned earlier, vertigo inducing precipitous cliffs, gorgeous beaches and barren, dusty countryside.  You can almost feel the sultry warmth, taste the dust and see the heat shimmer. This is a long book at 650 pages, but worth the time it takes to read and I would encourage you to give it a go.  I don’t recall what I read on that holiday in Majorca, but this would have been perfect.

I was sent this book by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press and I owe them a bit of an apology for my tardiness seeing as I received it back in September.  I read it quite quickly and sat down on several occasions to write but couldn’t.  I’ve needed some time to digest it!  Sorry Sam!  Galley Beggar is a new independent publishing house, with only this and one other book in their catalogue.  Their newest book My Elvis Blackout by Simon Crump has had great reviews in the last week.  Check them out here: Galley Beggar Press

This book is now off to Literary Taste, who lives in Madrid and I’m sure will appreciate it.

Summer Reading

It has taken me over a week to write this post…it’s caused me a bit of grief if I’m honest.  A few weeks ago a friend asked me for some holiday reading recommendations.  Pressure indeed. Holidays are so precious and often it is the only time some of my friends get uninterrupted reading time – to get this wrong, might be disastrous.  This post first started as a long list of books I thought would be great for various destinations, all designed to get you into atmosphere of the place.  The list was getting longer and I kept thinking of more I could add.  Pointless.  When someone asks for a recommendation they want 2 or 3 options to choose from.  Once I get started though I can’t stop – I just keep thinking of other books that I would love people to read.

I’ve now decided to change strategy and instead of recommending a long list of fab books, I’ll tell you about the books I plan to read between now and when the little Fictionhabits go back to school in September.  Maybe some of you can join me in reading a couple of these titles and we can compare notes after the summer.

First up is The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus.  I bought this a few weeks ago at the recommendation of the author himself.  I was scrolling through Twitter one evening when someone I follow retweeted this from Leo.  Dangerous indeed, especially after a couple of glasses of wine!  I did a quick search of blogs I respect and before I knew what I’d done, the book was in my basket at the big river.   It is a story within a story, using a unique narrative style following a writer promoting his book – or is it?  It gets some fabulous reviews, often referred to as “refreshing”.  My only concern is that a lot of reviews also use the word “postmodern” to describe it – a word destined to put me off, but I am willing to ignore this description and give it a go.  I bought it for £3.99, by the way, which I think is pretty reasonable!

This week sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Elizabeth Taylor.  She is generally regarded as one of the most under-rated writers of the last century.  She wrote about everyday life, apparently able to brilliantly capture the nuances of unremarkable events.  I have never read any of her work, but have read so much about her in the last months, that I feel I can’t put it off any longer and need to get hold of one of her books.  I am going to check my local second-hand bookshop first, failing that my big river basket will probably contain A Game of Hide and Seek.  Radio 4 have been doing their bit to celebrate Elizabeth Taylor, with some short stories and Sunday’s Bookclub episode dedicated to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  Click on the links to listen (only available for a short time and to UK listeners – sorry!).

Anne Tyler is another writer I’ve read a lot about but not attempted any of her books.  She has written 19 books, the most recent published this year.  I picked up Ladder of Years, written in 1995, at my local second-hand book shop.  I vaguely remembered having read something about it somewhere.  It gets mixed reviews, so I’m not sure it is regarded as her best work, my hope is, those readers who were dissatisfied didn’t quite get it rather than really disliked it.  The story sounds quite interesting; a woman on a beach holiday, dressed only in a bathing suit, walks away from her family and just keeps walking.  I hope to get a flavour of Anne Tyler’s writing from this book as there are plenty of her other works adorning the shelves of my local town’s charity shops.

I recently won a little competition run by Penguin English Library and my prize was to choose one of their lovely reissues of classic works.  The cover art on all the books in this series, is beautiful.  I  chose The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.  I selected it because Poe is often cited as a writer and poet who influenced other writers.  This is a lovely little  book with several of his grisly tales.  It is exactly suited to holiday reading.

Other books I intend to read this summer are The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  These are both book club books.  Now all I need to decide is which of these books I take with me on our annual 2 weeks under canvas in France! (…and not a 50 Shades in sight).