1

Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

irmgard-keun-in-1935

Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ by Mara Wilson *****

‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set ofMelrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.’

9780143128229Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? was one of my most anticipated Christmas reads.  Wilson is just wonderful; I found myself wanting to be best friends with her when I saw her in both Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street as a small child, and was a little sad when I noticed years later that she seemed to have faded from the limelight.

Wilson is a witty and original writer, and comes across just as I thought it would.  Her narrative voice is engaging, and this renders the book rather difficult to put down from the very beginning.  Wilson is candid about her childhood struggles with continued acting and her mother’s death from cancer; she is intelligent, warm, and eye-opening in many respects.  Her letter to Matilda is insightful and almost tear-inducing.  Where Am I Now? is a poignant and meaningful memoir, and I for one cannot wait to see what she turns her hand to next.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Palace of the Snow Queen’ by Barbara Sjoholm *****

‘A Frequent traveler to Northern Europe, Barbara Sjoholm set off one winter to explore a region that had long intrigued her. Sjoholm first travels to Kiruna, Sweden, to see the Icehotel under construction and to meet the ice artists who make its rooms into environmental art. Traveling to the North Cape, she encounters increasing darkness and cold, but also radiant light over the mountains and snow fields. She crosses the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, attends a Sami film festival (with an outdoor ice screen), and visits Santa’s Post Office in Finland. Over the course of three winters, Sjoholm unearths the region’s rich history, including the culture of the Sami. As Sjoholm becomes more familiar with Kiruna, she writes of the changes occurring in northern Scandinavia and contemplates the tensions between tourism, the expansion of mining and development of the Ice Hotel, and age-old patterns of land use, the Sami’s struggle to maintain their reindeer grazing lands and migration routes.’

I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle.  Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.  9781593761592

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things.  She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past.  Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account.  It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further.  The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre which very much interests me, but one which I know I don’t read enough.  I have created a post where I wish to showcase ten works of magical realist fiction – five which I have personally loved, and five which very much intrigue me – with the hope of incorporating more books of the genre into my future reading.

97801404554651. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *****
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern ***** (review here)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.   Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.  Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.  Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.  As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

 

3. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter ****9781844085231
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

 

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger *****
Audrey Niffenegger’s dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

 

97800995382645. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender ****
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.  On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them.

 

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.  As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

 

7. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King 9781101994887
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”  Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.  But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

 

8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

 

97802419516519. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
”My name is Eva, which means ‘life’, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Isabel Allende tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place.’

 

10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany.’

 

What is your favourite work of magical realism?  Have you read any of these?  Which other books would you recommend?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Two Favourite Contemporary Novels: ‘Swimming Lessons’ and ‘The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty’

I have linked my relatively short reviews of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons (2016) and Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015) for two reasons – firstly, I adored them both, and secondly, there is a very thin and tenuous thematic thread which links the two.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller *****
“Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?”
9780241252154
I very much enjoyed Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and was very much looking forward to her second effort, Swimming Lessons.  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed it even more than her debut.  The plot very much appealed to me, and it was compelling from the outset.

Ingrid’s voice is rich and distinct; she has such agency.  The inclusion of her letters allows her to be present within the story despite not being visible in the physical world.  Each of the backstories which Fuller has created for her characters are just as vivid as their present; there is a wonderful sense of realism here.  The structure perfectly matches the plot, and the presence of the landscape is exquisite; it is always there, affecting the characters and, in part, being affected by them.  There is so much depth and emotion within Swimming Lessons, and so much to adore.

 

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida *****
In Vendela Vida’s taut and mesmerizing novel of ideas, a woman travels to Casablanca, Morocco, on mysterious business. While checking into her hotel, the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport all of her money and identification. Stripped of her identity, she feels burdened by the crime yet strangely liberated by her sudden freedom to be anyone she wants to be.  Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman s right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future.9780062110916

I have very much enjoyed Vendela Vida’s previous novels; they provide fantastic, intelligent escapism, which grips one from the beginning through to the end, and give realistic glimpses into vivid and vibrant places.  Her most recent effort, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is no different, and the fact that Morocco is high on my travel list made me look forward to reading it even more.

The second person perspective was used masterfully throughout, and worked incredibly well.  The story itself is relatively simple on the whole, but it has a complexity all of its own.  The sense of unease which creeps in is almost unrecognisable at first, but – in part due to the narrative voice used – the reader becomes so invested within the story that its tension soon heightens.  Vida plays with the concepts of identity and loss in her tautly written novel, which has been extremely well paced.  Little clues are left along the way, but one never quite guesses what will happen next.  The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a whirlwind of a novel, which begs for compulsive reading, and which deserves a far wider readership than it seems to have currently.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Reviews: ‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader’, and ‘Travels With My Aunt’

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman *****
97801402837091I was having a bit of a rereading kick during September (largely due to the fact that my TBR shelves were almost exhausted), and decided to pick up Anne Fadiman’s charming little volume of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.  Throughout, Fadiman’s scope is broad.  Whilst all of the essays are about books (no sh*t, Sherlock…), she writes about such things as the value of books as objects and how we treat them, to the art of writing sonnets, a skill she feels she has never quite mastered.

The entire collection is lively, and when read (or reread) from cover to cover, it feels like a breath of fresh air.  Fadiman’s writing is intelligent and appreciative.  I very much admire the chronological placement of essays too; with the exception of the final two, which have been juxtaposed to improve the flow of the piece, all are presented in the order in which Fadiman wrote them.  The chapter about proofreading particularly tickled me, having worked as one myself.  Ex Libris is an absolutely lovely book, which makes me feel privileged to be a bookworm.

 

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene **** md16759105867
I am a very lucky human.  My mother procured the gorgeous Folio Society edition of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt in a raffle, actually swapping her original prize with this one just for me.  (Three cheers for Mums!)  I have wanted to read it for ages, despite not being that well acquainted with Greene’s work.  (I mean, I’ve read Our Man in Havana, and watched Brighton Rock, but that’s about it).  For some reason, I was under the impression that Travels With My Aunt was a non-fiction account, with semi-autobiographical undertones.  Apparently not; it turns out that this is a novel.  I have no idea what formed my misapprehension.  Any ideas, readers?

Travels With My Aunt is a romp.  It’s kinda like Jeeves and Wooster, without the butler and with a wild old lady thrown into the mix.  Despite the title’s emphasis of travelling, the novel definitely feels more like a character- rather than a plot-driven piece.  Our narrator, Henry, and his Aunt Augusta, are the stars of the show, if you like; the latter certainly more so.  Henry is a retired bank manager, and seems to have donned the stereotypical shroud of being a bit dull, and a bit of a goody two-shoes.  No matter.  He just makes Aunt Augusta seem more vibrant, surprising, and larger than life, which is hardly a bad thing when faced with an eccentric.

Travels With My Aunt is an entertaining and unpredictable read, which does feature some travels.  My only qualm was that I found the character of pot-smoking (and smuggling) Wordsworth rather ridiculous, and his accent overexaggerated to the extreme.  The ending was most peculiar too, but perhaps that’s a trademark of Greene’s novels.  Who knows?  Well, hopefully me when I read more of them…

Purchase from The Book Depository