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Penguin Moderns: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ by Chinua Achebe *****

The twenty-eighth book on the Penguin Modern list is ‘the father of modern African literature’ Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  Of Achebe’s work, the only book of his which I had read before picking this up is Things Fall Apart, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really looking forward, therefore, to reading some of his non-fiction, and this collection of ‘electrifying essays on the history, complexity and appropriation of a continent’ felt like the perfect way in which to begin his oeuvre.9780241338834

Africa’s Tarnished Name is comprised of four essays: ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, which is adapted from a speech given in Lagos in 2008; ‘Travelling White’, which was first published in The Guardian in 1989; the titular essay, published in Another Africa in 1998; and ‘Africa is People’, which has been adapted from a speech delivered in Paris in 1998.  All of these essays can be found in the 2011 collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child.

Achebe was born into the ‘Igbo nation’, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria.  In ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, Achebe discusses nationality, and the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960.  He goes on to point out the governmental issues which came with this independence, and the subsequent coups and massacres of citizens, which led to a bloody Biafran civil war.  He discusses, quite openly, his difficult relationship with Nigeria.  He writes that his feeling toward the country ‘was one of profound disappointment’, before going on to say: ‘I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and -women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the twentieth century.’

Achebe’s essays feel immediately warm and amusing, particularly with regard to their tongue-in-cheek humour.  The first essay begins: ‘Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese.  Or, better still, like ballroom dancing.  Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat.  I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.’

He discusses, amongst other things, the portrayal of Africa in fiction, and Western perceptions of the continent.  Achebe makes some very interesting points throughout.  ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, for instance, begins: ‘It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the furthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis.’  The second essay, ‘Travelling White’, details Achebe’s travels in other African countries during 1960, and the racism which he encountered along the way.

In each of these essays, Achebe has packed so much into such a compact space, without sparing his reader explanations.  He writes with brevity, and with confidence, and speaks with both authority and intelligence.  These essays are filled with wisdom and measured arguments, and are often quite profound.  There is so much which can be learnt from this important collection, and it is clear to see why the author is so revered.  Achebe is a gifted essayist, and I certainly do not want to leave it too long before I read more of his work.

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Penguin Moderns: Italo Calvino, Audre Lorde, Leonora Carrington, and William S. Burroughs

9780241339107The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino ** (#22)
I have not really been a fan of what I have read of Italo Calvino’s work thus far, but went into this collection of ‘exuberant, endlessly inventive stories’ with an open mind nonetheless.  The tales collected here – ‘The Distance of the Moon’, ‘Without Colours’, ‘As Long As the Sun Lasts’, and ‘Implosion’ – were published between 1965 and 2009, and have been variously translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver.  I found Calvino’s work interesting enough, particularly with regard to the metaphors which he uses.  There is some really imaginative imagery to be found here too.  Overall, however, I found this collection – which hovers between the classifications of science fiction and fantasy – peculiar, and not to my taste.  It is nothing which I would have chosen to read had it not been included in the Penguin Moderns Collection.

 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde **** 9780241339725(#23)
This collection of ‘soaring, urgent essays on the power of women, poetry and anger’ was my first taste of Audre Lorde’s writing.  The majority of the essays collected here were first given as conference papers between 1978 and 1982.  The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House includes the titular work, as well as ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, and ‘Learning From the 1960s’.  Throughout, Lorde writes with confidence and intelligence.    The 23rd Penguin Modern is an accessible book, which explores feminism and the issues which it poses for minority women, and those whose identify as anything other than heterosexual.  Lorde weaves in elements of black history and lesbianism.  Each of these essays is thought-provoking, and I would definitely like to read more of her work in the near future.

 

9780241339169The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington **** (#24)
Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday is one of the books which I have been most looking forward to in the Penguin Moderns series.  I read her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, last June, and very much enjoyed its brand of absurdity.  The titular story was written as part of a collaborative novel in 1939, and the other stories – ‘White Rabbits’, ‘Uncle Sam Carrington’, ‘The Debutante’, ‘The Oval Lady’, ‘The Seventh Horse’, and ‘My Flannel Knickers’ – have all been translated from their original French by the likes of Marina Warner and Carrington herself.  The writing here is characteristically Carrington’s; each tale is filled with oddity, and surprises the reader at every grotesque turn.  Throughout, Carrington has a wonderful knack of vividly setting scenes, and her prose is at once odd and beguiling.  There is a dark, startling humour throughout, and an otherworldly sense to her stories.  The author clearly had such an imagination; this collection has left me eager to read more of her work.

 

The Finger by William S. Burroughs ** (#25) 9780241339077
These stories – ‘The Finger’, ‘Driving Lesson’, ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, ‘Lee and the Boys’, ‘In the Cafe Central’, and ‘Dream of the Penal Colony’ – have all been taken from William S. Burroughs’ Interzones (1989).  Of his work to date, I have read only Naked Lunch, which I found quite odd.  These stories, however, were far stranger.  As a collection, I did not feel as though there was a great deal of coherence between them, despite an overlap of characters.  Some of them also felt rather brief and unfinished.  I do enjoy Beat writers on the whole, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but I find Burroughs’ work far more difficult to get into.  Whilst the tales here were readable enough, I found that some of the descriptions made me feel rather sick, and I did not enjoy a single one of them.  On the whole, there did not seem to be a great deal of point to any of these stories.  Not for me.

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Penguin Moderns: Clarice Lispector and Ryszard Kapuscinski

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector ***** (#15)
9780241337608I was so looking forward to the inclusion of Clarice Lispector in the Penguin Moderns series, and am happy to report that Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, the fifteenth book, is my favourite so far.  I have not read much of Lispector’s work to date, but find her writing glorious, and the perspectives which she uses fascinating.  The three stories collected here – ‘Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, ‘Love’, and ‘Family Ties’, all of which were published in 1960, and have been translated by Katrina Dodson – promise the blurb, are ‘three intoxicating tales of three women – their secret desires, fears and madness – from a giant of Brazilian literature.’

There is a peculiar beauty to each of these tales; they have an almost otherworldly quality to them, even when Lispector is writing about rather mundane things.  The titular story in this volume begins: ‘Throughout the room it seemed to her the trams were crossing, making her reflection tremble.  She sat combing her hair languorously, before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.  Her eyes didn’t leave themselves, the mirrors vibrated, now dark, now luminous…  Her eyes never pried themselves from her image, her comb working meditatively, her open robe revealing in the mirrors the intersecting breasts of several young ladies.’

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady is both emotive and absorbing, and is filled with intelligent nuances.  Lispector’s voice is searching and perceptive.  I was utterly swept away with the three stories here, and absolutely loved each one of them.
An Advertisement for Toothpaste by Ryszard Kapuscinski *** 9780241339329
Before picking up An Advertisement for Toothpaste, I had not read anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  The sixteenth Penguin Modern was translated from its original Polish by William R. Brand, and consists of several essays, all of which were written in 1963 and published in 2017.  In these essays, states the blurb, ‘the great traveller-reporter finds an even stronger and more exotic society in his own home of post-war Poland than in any of the distant lands he has visited.’

An Advertisement for Toothpaste consists of the title essay, as well as ‘Danka’, ‘The Taking of Elzbieta’, and ‘The Stiff’.  I was not sure what to expect in this volume, but found myself really enjoying Kapuscinski’s descriptions; in ‘Danka’, for instance, he describes the way in which he ‘went back into the town.  I won’t give its name, and the reportage will explain why.  It lies in the northern part of Bialystok province, and there is no one who has not seen, at least once in their life, one of a hundred little towns like this.  There is nothing distinctive about any of them.  They put on a drowsy face, damp patches growing with lichens in the furrows of their crumbling walls, and anyone who walks across the town square has the impression that everything is staring at him insistently from under half-closed, motionless eyelids.’  Kapuscinski certainly uncovers some interesting things, and meets a whole cast of interesting people along the way.  Whilst I found these essays interesting enough to read, it has not sparked in me a desire to read any more of the author’s work.

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Penguin Moderns: George Orwell and Gertrude Stein

Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell **** (#7) 9780241339565
George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is the seventh book in the Penguin Moderns series. I have read a few of his non-fiction works to date, and always find his tone engaging and his content incredibly well informed. Here, in this series of essays first published in 1945, Orwell offers ‘biting and timeless reflections on patriotism, prejudice and power, from the man who wrote about his nation better than anyone.’

Collected here are ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, and ‘The Sporting Spirit’. As ever with Orwell’s work, his essays feel so relevant to twenty-first century Britain – and, indeed, to many other countries. Orwell writes with such wonderful turns of phrase, and his arguments are set out logically and intelligently. Of course, it must be noted that given the year in which these essays were written, some parts of Orwell’s narrative feel very of their time, particularly with regard to some of the vocabulary which he uses to describe groups of people. Regardless, Notes on Nationalism is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection.
9780241339688Food by Gertrude Stein * (#8)
‘From apples to artichokes, these glittering, fragmented, painterly portraits of food by the avant-garde pioneer Gertrude Stein are redolent of sex, laughter and the joy of everyday life’, proclaims the book’s blurb.

I shall begin this rather negative review by pointing out that I have not read much Stein before, save for a few fragmented pieces. Despite loving modernism as a genre, I have found those extracts of Stein’s which I have come across quite hard work to read, and a couple of them have been almost impenetrable. Food was therefore one of the books which I was looking forward to least in the Penguin Moderns collection, despite loving food and food writing.

Food was first published in Tender Buttons in 1914 and, I imagine, was just as unintelligible then as it proves to be now. Clearly Stein was pioneering in her use of language, but I do not enjoy repetitive sentences like those which fill this book, some of which appear say nothing whatsoever, and others which go on and on far longer than is necessary. From the essay on ‘Roast Beef’, for instance, Stein writes: ‘There is no use there is no use at all in smell, in taste, in teeth, in toast, in anything, there is no use at all and the respect is mutual’.

Collected here are a series of highly meandering essays, some of which are more like lists, and others which seem to evade their titular subject entirely. If this book had not been so short, I definitely would have stopped reading it quite early on, and it was definitely a source of irritation to me as it reached its end; it has been the first Penguin Modern which I have not enjoyed in the slightest. Food has, however, done one very positive thing; it has confirmed entirely that Stein is not for me.

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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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‘Here Is New York’ by E.B. White *****

E.B. White’s Here Is New York has been described as a ‘remarkable, pristine essay’, and The New York Times lists it as one of the best ten books ever written about the ‘grand metropolis’ of the city.  White’s essay was originally an article written for Holiday magazine; he declined to revise it at all before it was published in book form in 1948.  New York is one of my absolute favourite cities, and I have been eager to read White’s essay for years; thankfully, my parents bought me a lovely slim hardback copy, introduced by Roger Angell, for Christmas.10814

In Here Is New York, the reader receives the privilege of going ‘arm-in-arm’ with White as he strolls around Manhattan.  Of course, the view which we receive of the city is an antiquated one – seventy years can hardly pass without a great deal of change, after all.  White himself writes of his decision not to revise the piece: ‘The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum.’  Angell justifies this lack of revision: ‘The thought occurs that this book should now be called Here Was New York, except that White himself has foreseen this dilemma,  The tone of his text is already valedictory, and even as he describes the city’s gifts he sees alterations “in tempo and temper”.  Change is what this book is all about.’  Angell rather touchingly adds that ‘Even as he looked at the great city, [White] was missing what it had been.’

Here Is New York is not a long essay, by any means, and is made up of just 7,500 words.  In his introduction, Ansell writes that whilst this book is ‘of modest length… it speaks more eloquently about what lasts and what really matters than other, more expansive pieces.’  White is not always complimentary about the city, although one can tell that he is impassioned of his chosen topic; rather early on in the essay, he writes: ‘The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York.  It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.  No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.’

As a modern reader, I was obviously unfamiliar with many of the places which White mentions.  However, his descriptions feel wonderfully vivid, as though one could walk around the corner and find oneself somewhere he has mentioned, which has not stood in that particular place for decades. Much of what he says, with regard to the inhabitants of the city for instance, still feels pertinent: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’

Here Is New York has a wonderfully, and sometimes sadly, nostalgic feel to it, and throughout, White’s writing is both measured and intelligent.  New York is a character in itself throughout the essay, and it is recognised in all of its grit and beauty.  I shall end my review with a gorgeous and sweeping description of the city, as White saw it all of those years ago: ‘The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.  The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’

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‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli ****

The concept of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions intrigued me.  Luiselli, herself a Mexican living in New York, has aimed to look at immigration into the United States, and its effects on the many children who undergo a gruelling, and often unsuccessful, trafficking process each year.  Tell Me How It Ends was originally written in English as a shorter essay, and lengthened when Luiselli decided to translate it into Spanish.

The book’s blurb states: ‘In this urgent, haunting, exquisitely written book, the questions 9780008271923asked by Valeria Luiselli are her own, her children’s, and those she finds drawn up on the questionnaire drawn up by immigration attorneys for the tens of thousands of Central American children who arrive in the United States each year after being smuggled across Mexico to the US border.’  Luiselli herself worked as a voluntary interpreter in a New York immigration court, and thus has first hand experience of learning what the children whom she speaks to have already been through in their short lives.  Her task is a relatively simple one; she follows what is written on the questionnaire, and translates the children’s stories from Spanish to English, to later present to the court dealing with individual immigration cases.  She writes: ‘The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.’  In her introductory chapter, Luiselli informs us that ‘there are no answers, only more questions’ with an exploration of this kind.

Interspersed with the stories of those whom she meets, Luiselli tells of her own experiences, as she and her family are deemed ‘non-residential aliens’ in the United States.  They decide to apply for green cards, which, if granted, will make them US citizens.  She discusses the process, which sounds draining by any form-filling standards, and its immediate aftermath: ‘When we finally sent out our applications… we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect – as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us.’  They decide to set off on a roadtrip soon afterwards, and their journey soon converges with the refugee crisis reaching its peak: ‘We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border, we collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat.  We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.’

The structure within Tell Me How It Ends is fitting.  Luiselli has approached her central question – what will happen to immigrant children when they reach the United States? – by focusing on forty separate, but interrelated questions or points.  Each of these questions forms the immigration questionnaire.

Luiselli’s account and exploration is a measured one.  Throughout, she talks of opinions expressed by different groups inside America, some of whom deem the refugee crisis ‘a biblical plague’, going on to mock how ridiculous their view of innocent children as a widespread threat to their way of life is: ‘Beware the locusts!  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – those menacing, coffee-coloured boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes.  They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays’.  She balances this with those who welcome the children with open arms, going out of their way to help their plight.

Some of the facts which Luiselli presents are shocking; for instance, ‘eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way’, and that during six months of 2010, there were more than 11,000 abductions during the journey.  Between April 2014 and August 2015, she tells us, ‘more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border’, which demonstrates starkly how widespread this problem is.  Throughout, Luiselli recognises the individuality of each child, and each case: ‘Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.’

Tell Me How It Ends is topical and important; a really moving and meaningful piece of reportage.  It demonstrates just how widespread the plight of many Central Americans is, and how they are willing to risk almost everything to find what they perceive will be a better life in the United States.  Luiselli’s account is poignant and searching, and as lucid as it is contemplative.  Her position as interpreter gives her voice authority, as does the way in which she approaches the issue of immigration.  She is highly, wholly empathetic to every child whom she meets, and everything which she presents is sensitively wrought.  There is an awful lot of depth within Tell Me How It Ends, and it is both a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

I shall end this review with rather a fitting quote from Luiselli, after many of the cases which she writes about have been explored: ‘In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.  And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.’

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‘No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters’ by Ursula K. Le Guin ****

Most will know Ursula K. Le Guin for her fantasy/sci-fi fiction writing, which has been immensely popular for many years now and has deeply inspired many readers and writers alike. Her name has even been mentioned as one of the exceptions of highly successful and broadly well-known female fantasy/sci-fi authors. Despite being a fantasy/sci-fi fan myself, I shamefully have to admit that I have not yet read any of her very famous fiction. I always respected her craft and wit, though, and being given the opportunity to read No Time to Spare has consolidated this respect. 33503495

A collection of essays on so many and various topics which were originally posted on her blog, No Time to Spare is an absolute gem of a book. As Le Guin states herself at the beginning, she had absolutely no interest in blogging until she read José Saramago’s (a very famous Portuguese writer) attempts at blogging and decided to give it a try as well, with apparently very successful results.

The book is divided into parts, each of which centers around a specific theme, such as old age and adapting to the changes brought by aging, writing and literature, feminism, politics, as well as various musings on everyday life and events. In between those parts, there are some sections like interludes, which she has devoted to her cat, Pard, and his adventures and journey into life with the author. These were very adorable to read, but I have to admit that they got rather dull at times and didn’t always manage to keep my interest intact.

As far as the rest of the essays go, Le Guin’s witty and sharp observations shine through and her clever opinions and remarks become a delight for anyone to read. Although I don’t really like the idea of creating a book out of previously published blog posts, I am very glad I read this book, since I had no idea that Le Guin maintained a blog and regularly updated it. Plus, it was very delightful getting to read her ideas and opinions on such a broad variety of topics, something which I haven’t really seen from any other author I closely follow.

I would definitely suggest this book to anyone, regardless of whether they are a fan of Le Guin’s or not, of whether they enjoy fantasy/sci-fi or not (although she makes some very insighful and very useful remarks about fantasy and literature). If you enjoy non-fiction and like a certain dose of wit and well-supported opinions in your reading, then I strongly encourage you to pick up this book. I read this as part of the Non-Fiction November challenge, but I waited until its release date to post my full review.

Nonfiction-November-2017-768x644

A copy was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.

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‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis ****

I purchased this for my Mad Woman’s Book Club’s themed read of March 2017 – death and dying.  Again, I wanted to get a little bit of a headstart so that I could ensure my thoughts were up in time, and ended up devouring it in one go in the middle of January.  C.S. Lewis was one of my favourite childhood authors, and I have lost count of the number of times I have read The Chronicles of Narnia whilst snuggled beneath a quilt as a young’un.  I have read very little of his work for adults, however, and was thus rather looking forward to reading A Grief Observed.

A Grief Observed is a slim volume, first published in 1961, in which Lewis muses about the death of his wife, H.  It begins with rather a heartrending paragraph, which certainly sets the tone of what is to follow: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing.’ 9780571290680

The extended essay, as I suppose one could categorise it, has been beautifully wrought.  It is both endearingly honest, and a moving tribute, in which he remembers his wife, and their given places within the relationship.  ‘For H,’ he writes, ‘wasn’t like that at all.  Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard.  Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it.  It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening.  How many bubbles of mine she pricked!  I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure – and there’s another red-hot jab – of being exposed and laughed at.  I was never less silly than as H’s lover.’

Lewis interestingly discusses a crisis of faith following his wife’s death: ‘But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.’  He is quite unable to pray for his late wife: ‘Bewilderment and amazement come over me.  I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity’.

Throughout, Lewis is contemplative, and talks candidly about the ways in which his grief permeates everything else in life.  He continually questions his own place within the world, and what his life is worth alone.  He also asks, and ponders upon, what comes after the initial period of grief.  ‘This is one of the things I’m afraid of,’ he writes.  ‘The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away.  But what will follow?  Just this apathy, this dead flatness?…  Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nostalgia?’

A Grief Observed is a writing exercise to both voice and come to terms with his sorrow.  Some of the sentences addressed personally to H are incredibly touching: ‘Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left?  You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared’.  I am personally an atheist, but Lewis’ ruminations on life and grieving were still of interest to me.  I found myself identifying with him on several levels, particularly with regard to the death of my grandmother some years past.  Whilst we have different viewpoints on a lot of things concerned with death and dying, A Grief Observed is an undoubtedly beautiful book.  It feels almost a privilege to be able to read this small tome with its incredibly powerful message.

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