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Travel: The Netherlands (March 2017)

In which my boyfriend and I travelled to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and had a whale of a time.

Music:
‘Let’s Get Out of This Country’ by Camera Obscura | ‘Holiday’ by The New Amsterdams | ‘Holland, 1945′ by Neutral Milk Hotel’

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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…’

 

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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.’

 

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Reading the World: Greece

Hopefully the weather is beautiful wherever you are today, but if not, why not journey to Greece with me for a reading holiday?  The following are five books which I would heartily recommend if you are interested in reading about Greece in all its glory.

1. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres 9780749397548
‘It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscien-tious but far from fanatical soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous – and a consumate musician. When the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to her fiance go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?’

2. The Iliad by Homer
‘One of the foremost achievements in Western literature, Homer’s “Iliad” tells the story of the darkest episode in the “Trojan War”. At its centre is Achilles, the greatest warrior-champion of the Greeks, and his refusal to fight after being humiliated by his leader Agamemnon. But when the Trojan Hector kills Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, he storms back into battle to take revenge – even though he knows this will ensure his own untimely death. Interwoven with this tragic sequence of events are powerfully moving descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle, of the domestic world inside Troy’s besieged city of Ilium, and of the conflicts between the Gods on Olympus as they argue over the fate of mortals.’

97802419514603. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
‘Escaping the ills of the British climate, the Durrell family – acne-ridden Margo, gun-toting Leslie, bookworm Lawrence and budding naturalist Gerry, along with their long-suffering mother and Roger the dog – take off for the island of Corfu. But the Durrells find that, reluctantly, they must share their various villas with a menagerie of local fauna – among them scorpions, geckos, toads, bats and butterflies. Recounted with immense humour and charm “My Family and Other Animals” is a wonderful account of a rare, magical childhood. ‘

4. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
‘For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay…And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope’s twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? Critically acclaimed when it was first published as part of Canongate’s “Myth” series, and following a very successful adaptation by the RSC, this new edition of “The Penelopiad” sees Margaret Atwood give Penelope a modern and witty voice to tell her side of the story, and set the record straight for good.’

5. The Greek Myths by Robert Graves 9780241952740
‘The Greek Myths is the definitive and comprehensive edition of Robert Graves’ classic imaginative and poetic retelling of the Greek myths. ‘Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions and began soaring towards the sun, rejoiced by the lift of his great sweeping wings. Presently, when Daedalus looked over his shoulder, he could no longer see Icarus; but scattered feathers floated on the waves below…’ Including many of the greatest stories ever told – the labours of Hercules, the voyage of the Argonauts, Theseus and the minotaur, Midas and his golden touch, the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home – Robert Graves’ superb and comprehensive retelling of the Greek myths for a modern audience has been regarded for over fifty years as the definitive version. With a novelist’s skill and a poet’s eye, Graves draws on the entire canon of ancient literature, bringing together all the elements of every myth into one epic and unforgettable story. Ideal for the first time reader, it can be read as a single, continuous narrative, while full commentaries, with cross-references, interpretations, variants and explanations, as well as a comprehensive index of names, make it equally valuable as a work of scholarly reference for anyone seeking an authoritative and detailed account of the gods, heroes and extraordinary events that provide the bedrock of Western literature. The result is a classic among classics, a treasure trove of extraordinary tales and a masterful work of literature in its own right.’

 

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‘From the Fifteenth District’ by Mavis Gallant ***

Mavis Gallant’s From the Fifteenth District is comprised of nine stories in all.  Gallant, who passed away in 2014, was a Canadian journalist who left Montreal to write fiction in Europe.  She was awarded the 2004 PEN/Nabokov Award for lifetime achievement.

The majority of Gallant’s stories have been inspired by her own life; they are largely set in Europe, and deal with characters who essentially migrate, transplanting themselves into cultures and countries which are so very different to their own. This central theme causes almost all of her protagonists to become strangers, and each one has to deal with this, and other culture shocks, to the best of their ability. Gallant also places focus upon relationships, and the ways in which they can fall as quickly as they can form.

Gallant uses a plethora of different plots, all of which contain common themes.  The storylines which she has crafted are relatively diverse: in ‘The Four Seasons’, for example, a young woman named Carmela travels to the Ligurian coast to look after twins Tessa and Clare Unwin, whose family are ‘too poor’ to do anything other than scrimp and save; in ‘The Moslem Wife’, we learn about Netta Asher’s early life and marriage in the South of France, as interesting in its early stages as in its final; and in ‘The Remission’, we are introduced to Alec Webb, ‘far more ill than anyone cared to tell him’, who travels to the Riviera to die.  The alternative, he tells his sister, ‘meant queuing for death on the National Health Service, lying on a regulation mattress and rubber sheet, hearing the breath of other men dying’.

Largely, the stories in From the Fifteenth District are tight and perceptive.  Access is allowed into every corner of the worlds and scenes which the author creates.  Gallant’s descriptions of the surroundings and actions of her protagonists are often far more detailed and original than are the descriptions of the characters themselves: ‘In the summer dark, belles-de-nuits glowed pink, lemon, white…  In May the nights were dense with stars and fireflies.  From the rose garden one might have seen the twin pulse of cigarettes on a balcony’ (‘The Moslem Wife’).  The pasts of Gallant’s protagonists are built deftly, and she is forever dripping in little snippets of information about them into her plots until they feel fully formed.  Largely, her main characters are complex constructions, but those who flit around their world – children, for example – are shadowed creatures, who never really come to life.

Some of the tales here hook from the very beginning.  ‘The Late Homecomer’, for example, begins: ‘When I came back to Berlin out of captivity in the spring of 1950, I discovered I had a stepfather’.  Unfortunately, not all of Gallant’s tales follow this pattern; others feel rather flat and can take quite a while to get going.  Sadly, whilst I very much enjoyed some of the elements of From the Fifteenth District, I did feel a little disappointed with the tales on the whole.  Some of them were bogged down in relatively mundane details, which seemed at odds with the writing at times.

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