War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay): Man Booker Long List 2017

I have not read such a gorgeously written book in a long time. The images which Stefan Hertmans paint for us, brilliantly translated by David McKay, are as clear in my mind as if I had watched them on film. From my mind, though, they become seared on my heart until I must put down the book for a brief respite.

This story is a vivid re-imagining of the narrator’s grandfather, a man with the birth and death dates exactly matching those of my maternal grandfather: (1891-1981) “as though the numbers played leapfrog with each other.” From two notebooks of handwritten memoirs he  reconstructs his grandfather’s life, and thus creates a more complete understanding of his own.

When his grandfather comes down the stairs to present him with a gold pocket watch, the grandson has no way of knowing what a precious gift it is. The story of this watch, passed from generation to generation before it was passed to him, was yet unknown. When it slipped from his grasp, and broke into bits minutes within receiving it, he had no way of knowing the places it had been in his grandfather’s pocket. Or, in his grandfather’s life.

And I broke it, an heirloom that was nearly an antique when he was young. What could he have done with the shattered pieces? A man walks by with a panting Doberman straining at the leash; I hear pigeons cooing. It’s too late now for the remorse that holds me helpless in its grip.

(How well I remember my grandmother giving me the pearl earrings she wore for her own wedding day, and several months later asking me how I liked them. I had to tell her that I had felt my ears one day, to find that one was missing. She looked at me for awhile, but never once scolded me, before she said, “These things happen.” What memories of hers were lost with my carelessness?)

War and Turpentine tells of his grandfather’s life, from these small experiences as a young boy, to an adolescent who works a grown man’s job in an iron foundry, to his enlistment in World War I, to seeing the woman he wants to marry in an upstairs window behind his house. Before he can marry her she dies of pneumonia, and he bravely marries her elder sister, for he is a man who

…seemed to possess no egotism, conceit, or self-importance, but only an instinctive eagerness to be of service, a quality that made him both a hero and a first-class chump.

The narrative of this man, who was “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he’d wished to become” became a tool for me to think back on my own family, my own history, and the hunger I often feel for time gone by.

Consider this snippet of a quote:

“…if you praise a simple fellow like that, it’ll only go to his head, and he’ll stop applying himself.”

How heartily my teachers, and even some members of my family, adhered to that sentiment! It has caused me to work unceasingly for praise, and when I became a mother, to render it too easily to my own son.

And now, perhaps you’re wondering about the inclusion of the painting by the cover of the book? It is Velazquez’s Venus at Her Mirror, known as the Rokeby Venus. But, Urbain Martien has repainted it, and unbeknownst to him is discovered by his grandson crying over the portrait. For the face which he has painted on the Venus is that of Maria Emelia, the one woman whom he truly loved, the one woman with whom the life he desired was denied. She brackets the beginning of the story, as well as the end, and lies in the shadows of all the pages in between.

War and Turpentine by Sefan Hertmans
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Published August 9, 2016
304 pages

The Confessions of a Young Nero by Margaret George

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“Let them call me cruel. Better that than dead.”

I have had a strong desire to know more about Rome’s emperors and history ever since I read Captivity in January, for not only am I entranced by all things Italian, I like to have a reference point for the New Testament. (Which I read regularly.)

Margaret George is a new author to me. I have not read any of her previous novels: Elizabeth 1; Helen of Troy; Mary, Called Magdalene; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Autobiography of Henry VIII. But, in reading The Confessions of a Young Nero, I find her research to be as exhaustive as I could imagine it to be.

She paints a portrait of Nero which is compassionate and sympathetic to what must have been a truly anxious life. From the very first chapter, his uncle (Caligula) attempts to murder him by throwing him overboard at the age of three. His mother, Agrippina, is no better. She is a manipulative, conceited woman whose allegiance lies with whomever can give her the most power. It is a wonder Nero grew up to be emperor at all, with such attempts on his life and enemies within his own family.

We catch a glimpse of his sorrows and disappointments, his life and achievements, his hunger for music and affection through Margaret George’s eyes. The novel is easy to read, filled with historical research, and fascinating in its portrayal of Nero’s life.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell): Man Booker International Prize Long List

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The important thing already happened. What follows are only consequences.

The pace of this book is frenetic, building up panic as those who have suffered a terrifying dream are well aware; we want to wake up, we want things to be better, we want to find out that none of what we dreamed was real.

Amanda lies dying on rough, coarse sheets. A boy murmurs to her, and their dialogue is all we have to tell us their story. To lead us to “the important thing.” At the boy’s prompting to remember, she relives the horrors that have brought them to this place.

In a disjointed, and bizarre narrative, we find that she and her daughter, Nina, have come from town to vacation in the peace of the countryside. She has befriended the boy’s mother, Carla, a beautiful woman with an elegant walk whose red hair is worn in a bun.

The boy’s mother has witnessed a stallion die after it has drunk from a stream. Next to the stream was a dead bird, and when the boy’s mother becomes aware that her son has drunk from the same stream, she carries him almost immediately to the green house. There, a woman to whom people go rather than the clinic, takes David into a back room.

Later, Nina sits down in the grass, becoming wet in what her mother assumes is dew. She and her mother are given pills at the local clinic and told to go home, rest. They have had too much sun.

Can it be mere stupidity that denies the effects of poison which has infiltrated the ground, the water? Or, perhaps is it easier to deny the truth than deal with its consequences. But, a mother’s desire to save her child, the “rescue distance” as Schweblin so aptly calls it, can only stretch so far in its effectiveness. And as the lines between the two children blur, so do the ramifications for the rest of the community.

This is a frightening book, an alarming story which seems part sci-fi and part horror. It has just the kind of emotional tension which the books on the Man Booker International Prize long list so cleverly create.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Published March 2, 2017 by Oneworld
160 pages

Find more reviews from Tony’s Reading List, Reading Matters, and A Little Blog of Books.

Have I Shown You My Midori Traveler’s Notebook? Have I Told You How Much I Love It?

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I have long been a record keeper, from trips to France as a child, to the horrible years before my first husband died, and beyond. I have a large selection of Italian leather bound journals, Moleskines, and various notebooks from places such as the Art Institute of Chicago. But none of them seem quite right because once filled their purpose seems largely done.

However, the Midori Traveler’s Notebook from Japan is more ideal than any I have ever used before. If only you could feel the patina of the cowhide leather, turning to velvet beneath the repeated touch of my hands. I have my name stamped in gold on the bottom cover, and a charm hanging off the bookmark such as Japanese girls like to hang on their phones.

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Inside are various inserts, such as the 2017 Weekly Diary which I use as a calendar and memory keeper,

as well as lined inserts which I use as a type of commonplace book: one for scripture verses I love, and one for a book journal.

But, the possibilities are endless! Once an insert is finished, it can easily be removed and replaced with another. There are all kinds of inserts to choose from: lightweight paper, grid, lined, sketch, or kraft. They are only about $6.00 each, and they all hold up to fountain pen ink without bleeding through.

My favorite shop is Baum-kuchen in Los Angeles, where Wakako weaves magic in the merchandise she sells. Today, this package arrived containing the items I had ordered all wrapped so beautifully.

There is a new lightweight paper insert (#013), a roll of 4 Season washi tape, a box of brass paper clips, and an Essential wallet to carry valuables such as credit cards and money.

 

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For I, too, believe that, “logic will take you from A to B. imagination will take you everywhere.”

The Man Booker International Prize and the 2017 Shadow Jury Panel

img_3846It is with great anticipation that I await March 15, for that is when the Man Booker International Prize long list will be made known to us. It is from this list that many of my favorite books of the year are read; several of them linger still in my memory so great is their power. If you have not read The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, or The Dark Road by Ma Jian or The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson perhaps you should stop reading this post and begin them now.

I became a member of the shadow jury panel in 2014, the year after I learned about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has since evolved into the Man Booker International Prize. Fortunately, Stu and Tony have invited me back, and now for the second year in a row our panel consists of the following book bloggers:

Stu Allen is returning to chair the first Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries. He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review. He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over five years ago.

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Clare started blogging at A Little Blog of Books five years ago. She does most of her reading during her commute to work in London and reviews contemporary literary fiction and some non-fiction on her blog. She particularly enjoys reading French and Japanese fiction in translation. Twitter: @littleblogbooks

Tony Messenger is addicted to lists, and books – put the two together (especially translated works) and the bookshelves sigh under the weight of new purchases as the “to be read” piles grow and the voracious all-night reading continues. Another Tony from Melbourne Australia, @Messy_tony (his Twitter handle) also reads Australian Poetry, interviewing a range of poets on his blog, which can be found at Messengers Booker (and more) and at Messenger’s Booker on Facebook – with a blog containing the word “booker” why wouldn’t he read this list?

Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-owner and book buyer for Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas. She is a freelance book critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She currently serves as a fiction judge for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Her recent reviews can be found @LoriFeathers.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb.

Grant Rintoul is a Scottish reviewer who lives on the coast not far from the 39 steps said to have inspired Buchan’s novel. Luckily the weather is generally ideal for reading. He blogs at 1streading, so-called as he rarely has time to look at anything twice. He can sometimes be found on Twitter @GrantRintoul

Although we comprise an unofficial jury, I think our opinion matters, for we represent the readers. Our passion lies with translated books, and each year we have unanimously agreed on which is the best work of literature from those presented on the long list. Please follow our thoughts on our collective blogs as we once again embark on a journey to discover which will be named the Man Booker International Prize winner on June 14, 2017.

And thank you, Daniel Hahn, for your brilliant work editing, writing and translating literature, as well as following me on Twitter. 😉

Reading Ireland Month

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The Company of Books, Dublin

It’s a photograph that bids me to enter. But the best I can do is read Ireland with Cathy and others this month, before the Man Booker long list is announced on March 14.

I hope to squeeze in a new book I received, by Catherine Dunne, entitled The Years That Followed. Catherine is an author I’m looking forward to discovering; here is a bit about her:

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“Catherine Dunne is the author of nine novels including The Things We Know Now, which won the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. She was recently long-listed for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction Award 2015. Her work has been translated into several languages. She lives in Dublin.” ~Simon and Schuster

Will you be adding anything for Reading Ireland this month?

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias

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I may have shared with you how I often feel a stranger in this world. When a writer is able to tap into that emotion, to make me reread a sentence because he has just described a way I’ve felt, it is a somewhat rare occurrence. But Javier Marias is one of the few writers who is able to do just that, touch a piece of my heart and make it feel a little less alone.

Take for example, this early description of Beatriz’ troubled marriage, which faintly mirrors my experience with my first husband:

“Perhaps that was her curse, her main problem,  and one of the reasons why she still loved him so much: he made her laugh and he always had. It’s very hard not to stay in love with or be captivated by someone who makes us laugh and does so even though he often mistreats us; the hardest thing to give up is that companionable laughter, once you’ve met someone and decided to stay with them. (When you have a clear memory of that shared laughter and it occasionally recurs, even if only very infrequently and even though the intervals between are long and bitter.)” p. 66

Film director Eduardo Muriel’s story is told by the twenty-three year old young man, Juan De Vere, and perhaps it is his naive perspective that lends this novel a coming of age feel. He knows very little of marriage, of adult manipulations or despair, and as the lives of Eduardo and his wife, Beatriz Noguera, unfold before our eyes we see through young de Vere’s perspective how bad begins.

This line comes from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” It is in part, of course, the title, but it is also a major theme of the novel. “What is ‘the bad’?” we ask ourselves, “and how did it begin?”

Could it be the loss of a child? A lie told by one spouse to another in the beginning of their marriage? Infidelity? We read to discover what it is that makes Eduardo treat Beatriz so scornfully, in private, and what makes her leave the house for trysts with Dr. Jorge Van Vechten, or an even more private appointment in a room at the Hotel Wellington.

This is a novel which has bound me to it all week, alternating between highlighting passages and stopping to ponder them. It is just the kind of breathtaking work which Javier Marias writes, a writer who has become one of my favorite Spanish authors. I leave you with a few quotes which struck me as I read:

“It’s true, however, that we always arrive late in people’s lives, indeed, we generally arrive late for everything.” p. 327

“…a nostalgia for the life you discarded always lingers on in the inner depths of your being, and, during bad times, you seek refuge in it as you might in a daydream or a fantasy.” p. 414

“It reminds me of that expression that so perfectly defines us Spaniards: Quedarse uno tuerto por dejar al otra ciego-‘To put out your own eye while trying to make another man blind.'” p. 419

“As I said, you can’t just put a line through the past to erase it. Even once you’ve decided that you no longer want that past.” p. 420

 

 

Mailbox Monday: a plethora of delectable temptations

If it looks like there are a lot books which have come my way, it is largely because I have not put up a Mailbox Monday post for far too long. But, as these books are so exciting to me I thought a few might interest you as well.

First, there is a Valentine present from my parents. The book inside the beautifully wrapped red paper, underneath a golden heart, is Perfume by Lizzie Ostrum.

The incredible stories of 100 perfumes from a whole century of scents.

Signature scents and now lost masterpieces; the visionaries who conceived them; the wild and wonderful campaigns that launched them; the women and men who wore them – every perfume has a tale to tell.

Join Lizzie Ostrom, dubbed ‘the Heston Blumenthal of perfume’ (Daily Mail), on an olfactory adventure as she explores the trends and crazes that have shaped the way we’ve spritzed.

Next, we have from SoHo Press:

Cruel is The Night by Karo Hämäläinen (Finnish):

Prizewinning Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen’s English-language debut is a literary homage to Agatha Christie and a black comedy locked-room mystery about murder, mayhem, and morality in our cynical modern world.

and

The Boy in The Earth by Fuminori Nakamura (Japanese):

As an unnamed Tokyo taxi driver works a night shift, picking up fares that offer him glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, he can’t escape his own nihilistic thoughts. Almost without meaning to, he puts himself in harm’s way; he can’t stop daydreaming of suicide, envisioning himself returning to the earth in obsessive fantasie…

Trysting by Emanuelle Pagano, comes from Two Lines Press (French):

A seductive blend of Maggie Nelson and Marguerite Duras, Trysting seizes romance’s slippery truths by letting us glimpse nearly 300 beguiling relationships: scenes between all genders and sexualities. Proving that the erotic knows no bounds, almost anything can be a means of attraction: from amnesia and throat-clearing to sign language, earplugs, back hair, arthritis, PVC, and showers. Combining aphorisms, anecdotes, and adventures, Trysting is a tour de force that gives a new perspective on a question as old as humanity.

Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in The World  by Jorge Zepeda Patterson came from Restless Books (Spanish):

Winner of the prestigious Premio Planeta, Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World is an enthralling international political thriller about sex, power, and information—and the extreme lengths people will go to attain them.

Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac (Spanish):

Savage Theories wryly explores fear and violence, war and sex, eroticism and philosophy. Its complex and flawed characters grapple with a mess of impossible, visionary theories, searching for their place in our fragmented digital world.

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry has been hailed as this Winter’s “must-read thriller”.

My Last Lament by James William Brown is, “A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own—and her nation’s—epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.”

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George is historical fiction based on the life of “Emporer Nero, one of the most notorious and misunderstood figures in history.”

and finally,

Lenin’s Last Roller Coaster by David Downing is a British spy novel set in 1917 which commemorates the Bolshevik Revolution.

I hardly know where to begin, but I hope I have given you some interesting titles to put on your radar.

 

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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“With FindTheOne.com there are no blind-date nerves, there’s no stilted conversations over dinner. I’d argue it’s more honest than most online dating sites, with their airbrushed photos and their profiles full of lies. Salary range, hobbies, favorite foods…all irrelevant. Who builds a relationship on a mutual love of tapas? A match might be perfect on paper, yet lack the spark needed to set it alight.

FindTheOne.com cuts through all that rubbish; the pretense that anyone cares if you like opera or walks in the park. It means men can take their time. They can follow you for a while, engage you in conversation; see if you’re interesting enough to take for dinner, instead of wasting their time on a garrulous airhead. It means men can get up close and personal. Smell your perfume; your breath; your skin. Feel a spark. Act on it.”

I must admit to the guilty pleasure of reading a thriller. I like to read them scattered between translated or classical literature, simply for the ride. But, I don’t like all thrillers. I didn’t like Gone Girl, for example, and I wasn’t particularly taken with The Girl on The Train. However, I See You kept me engaged all afternoon.

It is based on the premise that a web site sells the details of women’s commutes to work, from which Tube line they take, to the carriage in which they sit, to the exit they use in heading for home. When Zoe discovers a connection between an advertisement on the Gazette and subsequent murders of the women pictured on each advert, the tension rises palatably until its surprising crescendo.

Try as I might, I could not guess the perpetrator. But, Clare Mackintosh does not forcibly manipulate either her reader, or the clues, into a neat little package. The resolution makes perfect sense and has been drawn carefully from the first chapter if one is mindful enough to see it.

If the reader will remember that it is not just the site, nor those who are drawn to it, but the mastermind behind it all. The mind that causes Zoe, and now me, to carefully observe her surroundings to see if anyone follows her with malicious intent.

 

Other reviews:

“Mackintosh scripts a hair-raising ride all the scarier because its premise—that our predictable routines make us easy targets—is sadly so plausible.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[T]he steadily thickening paranoia will leave readers questioning their comfortable routines…a well-crafted blend of calculated malevolence, cunning plot twists, and redemption that will appeal to fans of Sophie Hannah, Ruth Rendell, and Ruth Ware.” —Booklist, starred review

Packed with suspense, twists, and turns…[Mackintosh’s] meticulous detail to investigative accuracy and talent in weaving a thrilling tale set her work apart from others in the field.” —Kirkus

(I See You by Clare Mackintosh will be published on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Penguin for the Advanced Reading Copy.)

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (‘Let’s stop talking and act.’)

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I have long been enamored of Russia, taking so many Russian literature classes in college I practically earned a minor degree in the subject. It doesn’t matter how much I have read of their woe and heartache, my fascination still holds thirty years later. And it has only been reinforced by this most excellent book by Helen Rappaport. With a perfect blend of prose and quotations, she gives us an account of the Russian Revolution which happened one hundred years ago this month. Here are some excerpts from Caught in The Revolution describing the initial events:

Thursday, February 9, 1917:

“The Cossacks are again patrolling the city on account of threatened strikes-for the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5:00 a.m. for shops that open at 10:00 a.m., and that in weather twenty-five degrees below zero.” J. Butler Wright

Saturday, February 25, 1917:

“Violent protest was certainly the intention of the workers over in the factory districts that morning, as they gathered for a huge march on the city. This time they had ensured that they wore plenty of padding under their thick coats to ward off blows…The impromptu bread protests of two days ago had now expanded into a political movement, colored by more and more acts of violence and looting.” p. 62-63

Monday, February 27, 1917:

“Events had, in fact, taken a decisive turn in the early hours of 27 February when the army, as many had predicted, began mutinying…In those first few hours most of the rebellious soldiers appeared disoriented and numbed by the momentous decision they had made, and for some time they had no sense of where to go and what to do, other than incite other regiments to join them.” p. 85-86

But, once the prisons were opened, the workmen were armed, and the soldiers were without officers, things were no where near to being solved.

Helen Rappaport writes an absolutely compelling account of the Russian Revolution, so mesmerizing it practically reads like a novel. The pages fly by as I find myself absorbed in the first hand accounts and meticulous research which she has conducted.

Caught in the Revolution not only tells about the troubled history of Russia, it speaks pointedly of a nation’s unrest with a leader whom they see as non-conciliatory.  I’ve read about them in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and I fear for our own country in its present state of discord and bitter unhappiness. It is not too far a stretch to draw parallels between the angry citizens of Russia and present day America although we are one hundred years apart.

The publication of this book couldn’t be more timely.