1

Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Reading the World: Europe (One)

Since setting out my Reading the World project, and working out which books fit best for each country, I have found that there are a wealth of countries which I have read only one or two books from or about, and some which I have not touched upon at all.  Rather than discard these posts altogether, I thought that it would be a good idea to bring them together under the broad heading of ‘Europe’, and schedule a few posts which showcase fiction and non-fiction from many other countries on the continent.  Without further ado, here is part one.

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker (Transylvania, Romania) 9780141199337
‘A chilling masterpiece of the horror genre, Dracula also illuminated dark corners of Victorian sexuality. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on a London home, he makes a horrifying discovery. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the arrival of his ‘Master’, while a determined group of adversaries prepares to face the terrifying Count.’

2. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (many different places around Europe)
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

97807553908543. The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall (Hungary; review here)
‘Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel. Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos complied by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary. It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen. Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.’

4. Liquidation by Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
‘Kingbitter, an editor at a publishing house on the verge of closure, believes himself to have been the closest friend of a celebrated writer and Auschwitz survivor, B, who recently committed suicide. Amongst the papers B has left him, Kingbitter finds a play entitled Liquidation that uncannily predicts the behaviour of B’s ex-wife, his mistress and Kingbitter himself. As he obsessively reads and rereads the play, Kingbitter becomes transfixed with the idea that buried within these papers is B’s great novel: the book that will explain his relationship with Auschwitz. Harrowing but also bleakly comic, Liquidation is both a literary detective novel and an exploration of how B’s decision to end his life after surviving the horrors of Auschwitz affects those he leaves behind.’

5. The Tiger’s Wife by Thea Obrecht (unnamed Balkan country) 9780753827406
‘Natalia is on a quest: to discover the truth about her beloved grandfather. He has died far from home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery. Recalling stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia suspects he may have died trying to unravel two mysteries. One was the fate of a tiger which escaped during German bombing raids in 1941; the other a man who claimed to be immortal. But, as Natalia learns, there are no simple truths or easy answers in this landscape echoing with myths but still scarred by war.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction’ by M.A. Orthofer ****

Loving translated and ‘world’ fiction as I do, I took a chance on downloading The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction from Netgalley.  It is a Columbia University Press publication, and for a recommended reading book it is vast; in its physical form, it runs to almost 500 pages.  The Complete Review itself was founded in 1999, and the advent of the Internet made it far easier to compile such a book, focusing as it does upon ‘global inclusivity’.  This is undeniably wonderful news for the bookish amongst us.

In his introduction, M.A. Orthofer writes: ‘Because American authors provide an enormous amount and variety of work, American readers are arguably spoiled for choice even before resorting to fiction from abroad.  With novels and stories set in every imaginable locale… and styles ranging from the most accessible to the wilfully experimental, American fiction could well cover it all’.  The importance of fiction in translation is highlighted from the outset.  Orthofer goes on to add, ‘… foreign literature can offer entirely new dimensions and perspectives’.  Indeed, it is a manner with which to learn about the world, whether in terms of paths untrodden in different locales, or with regard to the history of a particular area.
9780231146753

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is organised geographically – which, of course, throws up its own problems at times – but it is perhaps the best, and most comprehensive, way of arranging such a collection.  Each geographical region has been split into sections; for instance, if a country had a particular literary movement as part of its history, it has been included.  An introduction to each chapter has been given, which briefly discusses the literary tradition in each country or region, and leads seamlessly into the recommendations themselves.  Whilst Orthofer does mention the more obvious choices, new authors are never far behind, be they cutting edge, or just forgotten in the depths of time.

A broad range of reads have been included, and the quantity of them is so vast that one wonders how Orthofer himself has managed to read them all.  He often talks about 1,000+ plus works which are well worth checking out.  Many different genres have been taken into account, and also included are the recommended starting points for some of the more prolific authors available in English translation.

storefrontTo give you an idea of some of the recommendations, we shall take France as our starting point.  A country with a rich history, one already knows that French literary output is strong within its English translations, and I am sure that many of us could name several contemporary authors, such as Muriel Barbery and Michel Houellebecq, for instance.  Orthofer goes one better, drawing interesting and original novellas and short story collections by the likes of Jean-Marie Gustave de Clezio, Boris Vian, Albert Cohen, Philippe Sollers, Herve la Tellier, and Anne Garreta to the fore.

The only two discrepancies about this book are that ‘contemporary’ is used loosely, and seems to contain any author writing from the early twentieth century on, and that it places such emphasis upon translated fiction in its introduction that one would think such fiction was the only genre incorporated.  Not so.  In fact, there is an extensive section written about the United Kingdom, Ireland, and America, which I did not expect to find at the outset.

Despite these two small qualms which I had with the whole, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is invaluable for any serious reader.  It is possible to fill rather a large notebook with its recommendations, and makes one itch to track down books which have particularly caught their attention.  Clearly a labour of love, Orthofer’s book is well written and far-reaching, and will be a welcome addition to any bookshelf (or Kindle).  It is in the vein of the Bloomsbury series of recommended reading books, but it goes so much further than any effort I have previously seen.  The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is the perfect companion for armchair travelling, and its quirky inclusions – including such things as ‘Greek mathematical fiction’ – will make any reader want to broaden their horizons.

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Reading the World: Belgium

My Reading the World series brings us to the lovely country Belgium.  I first visited whilst still rather a small child, for the purposes of visiting Centre Parcs, and have been back many times since.  Despite this, whilst scouring my shelves, I realised that I haven’t actually read much fiction or non-fiction set there.  Despite this, I have four books to recommend to you, and will happily take any of your recommendations to the library catalogue with me!

1. Marcel by Erwin Mortier 9781782270188
‘The debut novel by the great Flemish writer Erwin Mortier, Marcel vividly describes the history of a family in a Flemish village, bowed by the weight of history. Written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Marcel is a striking debut novel describing the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village. The mysterious death of Marcel, the family favourite, has always haunted the young boy. With the help of his schoolteacher, he starts to discover the secrets of Marcel’s ‘black’ past. The story of his death on the Eastern Front, fighting with the SS for the sake of Flanders, and the shame this brought upon his family gradually become clear. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family tale in wonderfully sensitive and evocative manner.’

2. The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb
‘From France’s ‘literary lioness’ (Elle), The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more. In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.’

97803072682113. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
The Professor is Charlotte Brontes first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Bronte is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire. William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Bronte’s death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.’

4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
‘Based on Charlotte Bronte’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also the story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

Reading the World: Austria

Austria, one of the most beautiful countries which I have been lucky enough to visit thus far, is next on the list.  This is possibly my most varied list of recommendations for my Reading the World project, containing, as it does, a graphic novel, a book which nestles somewhere between child and adult literature, a novel, a piece of non-fiction, and a collection of poetry.

1. Persepolis II: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi 9780375714665(2004)
‘In” Persepolis,” heralded by the “Los Angeles Times” as one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day, Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging. Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran. As funny and poignant as its predecessor, “Persepolis 2” is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism. In its depiction of the struggles of growing up here compounded by Marjane’s status as an outsider both abroad and at home it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.’

2. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997)
‘When Ellen Carr abandons grey, dreary London to become housekeeper at an experimental school in Austria, she finds her destiny. Swept into an idyllic world of mountains, music, eccentric teachers and wayward children, Ellen brings order and joy to all around her. But it’s the handsome, mysterious gardener, Marek, who intrigues her – Marek, who has a dangerous secret. As Hitler’s troops spread across Europe, Ellen has promises to keep, even if they mean she must sacrifice her future happiness.’

97809542217203. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
‘It’s the 1930s. Christine, A young Austrian woman whose family has been impoverished by the war, toils away in a provincial post office. Out of the blue, a telegram arrives from an American aunt she’s never known, inviting her to spend two weeks in a Grand Hotel in a fashionable Swiss resort. She accepts and is swept up into a world of almost inconceivable wealth and unleashed desire, where she allows herself to be utterly transformed. Then, just as abruptly, her aunt cuts her loose and she has to return to the post office, where – yes – nothing will ever be the same.’

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
‘The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.The netsuke drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s “Luncheon of”” the Boating Party.” Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in “Remembrance of Things Past.”Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile.In “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.’

5. Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (ed. Edward Snow, 2011) 9780374532710
‘”The Poetry of Rilke” the single most comprehensive volume of Rilke’s German poetry ever to be published in English is the culmination of this effort. With more than two hundred and fifty selected poems by Rilke, including complete translations of the “Sonnets to Orpheus “and the “Duino Elegies,” “The Poetry of Rilke “spans the arc of Rilke’s work, from the breakthrough poems of “The Book of Hours “to the visionary masterpieces written only weeks before his death.’

Purchase from The Book Depository