Wednesday, March 28, 2012

book review: Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

This story gives an account from an  11 year-old boy into what it's like to hide from Germans at the height of the holocaust. Hugo's father has already been taken to the labour camp at the start of the book and him and his mother Julia are waiting to sort out their own plans of escape.

Hugo is meant to be taken by a peasant into the mountains but the man fails to come and the mother and son have little choice but to crawl through the sewers out of the ghetto. Hugo is taken under the protection of Mariana, a prostitute who lives and works in a brothel designed to keep the soldiers contented.

Hugo then spends the best part of a year and a half in a closet attached to Mariana's room and lives in a state of constant fear that he will be discovered. He enters into a dreamlike world of memories and visions of his parents and friends to sustain him through the cold nights and long days.

But a friendship and then a love develops between him and Mariana. She is damaged and hunts out the innocent love that Hugo is pressured into offering and then introduces him to adult ways.

In some ways this relationship, which is maintained even after the Germans have fled and the Russians breakthrough, is the central one in the book. Hugo finds himself eventually left alone as Mariana is taken by the Russians to face her fate as a collaborator.

Alone you come to understand just how fully the war has robbed him of his childhood. His parents and friends might have gone but you sense a greater loss, and one he will bear for the rest of his life, is the way he has suffered over the period of his hiding. In some ways it is a coming of age tale set against a horrific backdrop.

But for me the book lacked the depth I was hoping would come. At some points it reminded me of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with the reader clearly knowing well before the main character what was going on. But I found the relationship between Hugo and Mariana one that seemed to trivalise what was going on. Her lack of real interest in the Jews and their fate an his inability to understand her world leave you frustrated at a comprehension gap that grows wider rather than narrower as the story unfolds.

There were some moments in the book where the author had captured that sense of fear, chance and how fate can be settled in the strangest of ways but for the most part the education of Hugo is something almost mundane and it need not have been.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Names

In between reading some books that are on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist I have also been getting through The Names by Don DeLillo.

It's one of those books that feels dense and fairly quickly backs that impression up with a story that weaves around a failed marriage, archeology, international intelligence and a murderous cult. Quite how they all interact is down to the central character who interacts with the archeologist Own who discovers the cult near a dig in Greece.

The story takes place mostly in Greece set among a small group of US expats living on what seems to be the edge of Europe as they dabble in affairs in Turkey and beyond.

But this is a story mainly about language and the cult is central to that. They kill people who's names match the location. So for instance you would take a hammer to the skull of someone called Martin Knowles if he happened to live in Milton Keynes. There is a slight caveat to that and the person must be ill and have a condition that is eventually going to kill them anyway.

But as the book builds and there is a feeling of the inevitability that the central narrator is himself going to be a victim of the cult. I might be wrong there but we will see how it pans out.

A review will follow on completion...

Monday, March 26, 2012

book review: Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

Hinrich wakes up one day to discover his wife has died of a stroke. He initially starts to think of all the things that you should do in that situation to register the death. But as he lingers, something he does quite a lot, he starts to read the papers she was working on before she died.

Her papers show notes and revisions on one of his old stories. The story was biographical but in a way that tha author never expected anyone to realise. The way that his wife changes names and adds revisions makes it quite clear that she knew about his secrets and his desires.

As he starts to come to terms with that he begins to unpick their life together finding that the version of history he liked to believe was true was in fact also a work of fiction.

As he talks and moves around the room in the apartment that now contains the corpse of his wife the man begins to find out that punishment for infidelity, even an attempt that failed, is something can take time to come to the surface.

Hinrich is left alone, unforgiven and exposed as a man of weakness. He might regret the past and start arguing his side of the story but with his wife no more it is an argument he will never win and a one-sided conversation you will sense will haunt him until the end of his life. An ending that they had promised to spend together, catching the boat across the water to the afterlife. His wife has left him alone in every dimension .

The novellas from Peirene Press are books that can be consumed in a couple of hours. But my experience so far with the couple of titles I have read is that although short to read they take a long time to digest leaving a deep impression. This is no different.

book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Language defines us all. What tells you I'm English in seconds are the words that come out of my mouth. But imagine if all I had was a name tag sewn in a sailors jacket and no memory of anything else, even my mother tongue.

That's the starting point for this story of a doctor, patient and country caught in the middle of the Second World War. The doctor, Peter Friari, is a Finn who finds himself far from home both spiritually and physically. He is asked to care for a man who has been clubbed around the head and left for dead on Trieste quayside. The only distinguishing mark is a name label sewn into his sailor's jacket - Sampo Karjalainen.

That Finnish name is seized on by Dr Friari who is determined to help get the sailor home and starts his education of the Finnish language. The recovery is slow but determined and after a few weeks Sampo gets a chance to travel back to Helsinki. He struggles to communicate with those around him but starts to try to tackle the language and master Finnish.

Once back in Finland he finds a country that is haunted by a fear of Russian invasion. Memories of the past mingle with the present with myths and legends being called upon to galvanise the troops and remind those fighting of great former deeds.

Through this war torn land Sampo spends his time with a priest learning the language and writing down his grammar lessons and diaries in a notepad.

It is this same notepad that forms the basis of the story. Introduced as a document found in the hospital where Sampo had been staying the Doctor shares the story with the occasional commentary of his own - helpfully inserted in italics.

Sampo's story, intertwined with the doctor who is haunted by his past and trying to resolve his feelings for his country, is one about identity.

Grammar might not spark off thoughts of excitement but understanding language is what defines us all and as Sampo struggles to find his own past and work through Finnish he discovers a fair bit about the people around him, even if he doesn't find his own past.

A very clever story that rightfully deserves it's place on a longlist of books for a translated fiction prize as it is all about language and the importance of words, memories and identity.

book review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

"Even though nobody knew that you were in my life, you were the person who brought a raft at every rapid current and helped me cross that water safely. I was happy that you were there. I came to tell you I was able to travel through my life because I could come to you when I was anxious, not when I was happy.”

The idea of losing your mother is a difficult one to contemplate but what if you realised after you had lost her physically that you had been missing her for years before that sudden disappearance.

The idea of this book is to make you think about what you value and to act almost as a warning not to forget the people you love before it is too late.

Told in four chapters and an epilogue the story is told from different view points. Starting with the explanation that an elderly mother of five children who has health issues gets separated from her husband on the train on a trip to Seoul the hunt for the missing mother then unfolds.

Chapter one is told through the eyes of one of the mother's daughters. A successful novelist the viewpoint makes you think that for that chapter at least this is some sort of biographical work. The daughter realises that she had started to take her mother for granted long before she went missing and the time she gave her had become less and less.

Switching then to the older son you get an insight into the love and care that the mother bestowed on her first born. he is left realising that he pledged to himself to make her life better but he never quite delivered on those promises. Both the son and the daughter express regret and hope that given the chance they can find their mother and make good the things they failed to do.

Through the eyes of her children you get an insight into the mother's world - a hard rural existence scrimping and working all the time for the family. At one point her husband leaves her and she has to fend for herself and she has to struggle with loss and hardship throughout her life. Rather than help her with those the family ignore her problems or fail to deal with them properly.

The third chapter switches to the father and is one of the most moving because you get an insight into the grief he is unable to share with his children. Regrets weight heavily on him and he is lost without his wife.

Then the mother herself speaks. I struggled a bit here to work out who had picked up the story in chapter four and I'm not sure if that is because it changes to the first person or ir its because the ghostly movement takes time to understand.

Overall the book is powerful, makes you think not necessarily about your own mother, but certiantly those that you care about. It makes you determined not to promise and fail to deliver and not to regret the things you did not do and thought you would.

Monday, March 19, 2012

First impressions of New Finnish Grammar

For a translated work of fiction its rather neat having a story that is all about language. In this case a man with a lost memory is encouraged to relearn Finnish and start to head back towards his home.

The action is set against the backdrop of the second world war and the subject of the book starts with the relationship between a doctor and his patient. The doctor finds himself in the service of the German army far from home and identifies with the sailor who is in the same position in terms of being far from his native land.

This relationship between doctor and patient is one that is fairly crucial in the early stages and one based on a shared language, or at least a presumed sharing of language.

So far very good and looking forward to how it unfolds further...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012

Never let it ever be said that the world of social media is not one where friendships are made and connections formed that add happiness and interest. One of those book loving friends I have made Stuart Allen (otherwise known as Winstonsdad) has asked me to be part of the jury for the Shadow IFFP Prize.

The idea is that we shadow the judging process of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and have a bit of fun doing it. I have read one of the long list, Next World Novella, but am yet to post a review (will do that soon) and am aiming to get my hands on another couple. What unites the people who are doing this is a love of translated literature and so the chance to read some good books is not an opportunity to be missed.

The other judges apart from Stu and me are:

Mark of Eleutherophobia blog

Gary of Parrish Lantern

Rob of robaroundbooks

Kinna of kinna reads

Lisa of ANZ lit lovers 

Tony of Tony's Reading List

The longlist is:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker); translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

Alice by Judith Hermann (The Clerkenwell Press); translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (Alma Books); translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (Constable and Robinson); translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Telegram Books); translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia (Faber & Faber); translated from the French by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Dedalus); translated from the Italian by Judith Landry

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene Press); translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Jonathan Cape); translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein

Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad (Harvill Secker); translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland

Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus); translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga (Harvill Secker); translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg (Faber & Faber); translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvill Secker); translated from the Italian by Richard Dixo

Monday, March 05, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Sisters Brothers

Despite the potential unsavouriness of following two hired guns who kill at the drop of a hat you start to like Eli, the narrator of the tale of the two Sister Brothers.

Both clearly have psychological problems but it is Charlie, the older brother, who comes across from the start as being the more deranged and dangerous. He takes life easily and enjoys the deed.

But this is an enjoyable book following the two brothers as they head off on a assassination mission demanded by their employer the Commodore. As they head off towards the gold rush and the West they start a journey into their own relationship.

It's an easy read, with short snappy chapters, and it draws you in. Looking forward to seeing where it will end.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Month in review - February

Let's not beat around the bush. February was a poor month on the reading front. This as a result hit the blog because it's hard to post about very little without sounding rather desperate.

With only three books read things hit a new low. It wasn't too depressing because on other fronts targets were hit - particularly in my efforts to run a decent number of miles this year. But my credentials as a book blogger, which are flimsy to start with, will no doubt have taken another knock.

Anyway onwards and hopefully volume wise upwards into March.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Gonzo Republic by William Stephenson