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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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‘Tales of the German Imagination: from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann’, edited by Peter Wortsman ***

Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, is a ‘collection of fantastical, strange and compelling stories from 200 years of German literature’. It ‘includes such literary giants as the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as many surprising and unexpected voices’.

9780141198804The introduction has been written by translator Peter Wortsman, who has also edited the collection. In it, he states that ‘fear has indeed proven rich fodder for fantasy in the German storytelling tradition’, and that ‘the darkest German literary confections are such a pleasure to read because they are also spiked with humour – therein lies their enduring appeal’. Wortsman goes on to say that in editing the anthology, he has aimed to include stories and extracts ‘from a span of several centuries and from various literary movements born of crisis and doubt’.

Tales of the German Imagination is split into three separate parts, and includes predominantly male authors. In fact, Ingeborg Bachmann, mentioned in the title, is one of only two females featured in the collection. There are some other famous names amongst the authors – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. The anthology begins with three stories by the Brothers Grimm – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Children of Hameln’, which is their telling of a tale more commonly known as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whilst these stories are relatively well known in the English speaking world, others from the less popular authors feel fresh and add a nice twist to such a collection.

The stories themselves provide a varied mixture of themes and styles. Some are told from the first person perspective and others from the third, and we are immersed into a variety of historical settings where we meet a whole host of diverse protagonists and bystanders. The settings too are diverse, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to the United States. Several of the tales of much longer than others – ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘Rune Mountain’ by Ludwig Tieck and ‘Peter Schlemiel’ by Adelbert von Chamisso, for example, read more like novellas than short stories. The majority are standalone pieces, but several of the tales have been taken from longer works of fiction. Throughout, many different themes and literary elements have been made use of, from magic, the unexplained and the macabre to poverty, war and peace and the concept of madness.

The stories themselves have been nicely varied for the most part, and there is sure to be something to suit the tastes of even the most particular short story connoisseur. All relate to the human psyche in some way, and the most stunning and unsettling are provided by the Brothers Grimm, Georg Heym and Kurt Schwitters. Some of the tales are rather disturbed and the subject matter is not easy to read about at times, but the starkness of their telling and events certainly pack a punch. In Georg Heym’s ‘The Lunatic’, his protagonist ‘pranced about with two skulls stuck to his feet, like eggshells he’d just stepped out of and hadn’t yet shaken off… and then he stamped down, splotch, so the brains splattered nicely like a little golden fountain’. In Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Onion’, the protagonist tells us: ‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered… I had never yet in all my life been slaughtered’.

In some cases, the year in which the story was published is included below its title, but in others the life span of the author is included. This inconsistency is a little confusing at times, as is the way in which none of the stories have been included in a chronological order. Ordering the stories in such a way would have made it easy for the reader to see how the darker elements of German fiction have progressed as the years have passed. The biographical information pertaining to each of the authors has been tucked away in an appendix at the back of the volume, and it is a shame that these short yet informative paragraphs have not been paired with the stories themselves.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector ****

Translated from the original Portuguese by Idra Novey, The Passion According to G.H. was the first book by Clarice Lispector which I had the pleasure to read.  Many rave about the Brazilian author, but I have sadly found her books rather difficult to find thus far.  Lispector, born in Ukraine in 1920, was revered for her novels and short stories in South America, the first of which was published when she was just twenty-three.  To begin with some of the favourable reviews dotted around the book’s dust jacket, Orhan Pamuk deems her ‘one of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers’, and the New York Times Book Review heralds her ‘the premier Latin American prose writer of this century’.

9780141197357The novel is a strange but compelling one, and follows the inner thoughts of a well-to-do sculptress named G.H. in Rio de Janeiro.  After killing a cockroach in her maid’s room, G.H. goes through an existential crisis, in which she questions both her position in the world, and her very identity.  An ‘act of shocking transgression’ follows.  Lispector presents a fascinating and well-evoked glimpse into the female psyche, and the stream-of-consciousness-esque style which she adopts fits the plot marvellously.

Much of Lispector’s imagery is striking: ‘Then, before understanding, my heart went gray as hair goes gray’, for instance. Her prose is incredibly sensual; we feel, hear, sense, and see things just as our narrator does.  Sometimes this feels stifling, but it is necessary to the whole.  Each sentence has been richly – and sometimes confusingly – crafted: ‘I stayed still, calculating wildly.  I was alert, I was totally alert.  Inside me a feeling of intense expectation had grown, and a surprised resignation: because in this state of alert expectation I was seeing all my earlier expectations, I was seeing the awareness from which I’d also lived before, an awareness that never leaves me and that in the first analysis might be the thing that most attached to my life – perhaps that awareness was my life itself’.  The entire book is filled to the very brim with ideas, some of which are repeated three- or fourfold.  Lispector has also asked pertinent and pressing questions: ‘To find out what I really cold hope for, would I first have to pass through my truth?  To what extent had I invented a destiny now, whilst subterraneously living from another?’

The crux of the plot is about so little – the killing of a cockroach, which lasts for several pages – but it soon becomes a pivotal and all-consuming point from which everything else is born; the catalyst, as it were.  The Passion According to G.H. is fascinating, and is quite unlike anything I have read before.  For me, there were elements of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis present, but the novel is something so originally itself too.  Lispector, it is clear, is a marvellous author, and Novey’s is a fluid translation which, I imagine, reads with all the wonder and terror of the original.  The novel held my attention entirely until all of the religious-inspired prose came into play; yes, this is an important part of an existential crisis, I suppose, but I felt as though it was drawn out far too much to retain any interest.  Marvellously paced, The Passion According to G.H. is best savoured slowly.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ by Sasha Sokolov **

First published in Russia in 1980, Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf has been recently translated from its original Russian by Alexander Boguslawski, and the novel forms part of the Russian Library at Columbia University Press.  Sokolov began to write this novel, his second, before he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975.  What inspired him was his work as a game warden in the Volga, where he spent almost a full year living in a wooden cabin with no electricity.  In true Russian style, Sokolov’s chosen title comes from a quatrain in Pushkin’s wonderful Eugene Onegin. 9780231181464

On its publication, Between Dog and Wolf was greeted ‘with almost complete silence’, the antithesis to his Nabokov-endorsed first effort, A School for Fools.  The Western world ‘failed to review the novel, while their Russian emigre colleagues produced only a small number of rather general responses, without detailed discussion of its structure, language, or importance for Russian or world literature’.  Perhaps a valid reason for this omission is that the structure is so complex; it is comprised of the ‘uneducated, often dialectical, colloquial narrative of Ilya Petrikeich Zynzyrela’, as well as a poetic, impersonal style designed to reflect Russian literary tradition from the nineteenth century, and a series of poems ‘authored by Yakov’.

The introduction is, without a doubt, informative, and busies itself with allowing the reader the best inroad into this seemingly confusing novel.  Its style is academic; it is intelligent and useful, but reader beware, as it does tend to give away a lot of the later plot details.  In the main body of text, Ilya’s voice takes on a stream-of-consciousness style; Sokolov’s handling of dialect works well, and successfully puts across the kind of character his protagonist is.

It does take much determination to get through Between Dog and Wolf at times, but if you do reach the end, it is a book which is sure to stick with you for quite some time afterwards.  For me, it was a little too all over the place, and whilst it may be a book which I would have enjoyed had I had more patience, it is one which I have given up on for the time being.  It must be said that I did not abandon it because it was poor; I simply wasn’t in the mood for something so heavy going which I would have to work at considerably to enjoy.

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‘Russian Magic Tales: From Pushkin to Platonov’, edited by Robert Chandler ****

9780141442235Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, which presents ‘a unique collection of Russian folktales from the last 200 years’, is edited by Robert Chandler. Chandler informs us that in Russia, ‘where the oral tradition remained much stronger for a longer period, these magic tales retained their cultural importance’.

The informative introduction embraces not just Russian fairytales, but those from around the world. Chandler sets out the cultural differences between them and marvels at how the stories differ from one country to the next, as well as spanning the history and progress of such tales. A useful appendix has been included which gives explanations of all of the Russian words which find themselves within the text, and in this way the cultural understanding of the reader is broadened. An essay by Sibelan Forrester regarding the Baba Yaga interpretations in Russian folklore and literature has also been included, and this provides a lovely addition to the volume.

The volume’s blurb alone is inviting and intriguing in equal measure: ‘young women go on long and difficult quests, wicked stepmothers turn children into geese and tsars ask dangerous riddles, with help or hindrance from magical dolls, cannibal witches, talking skulls, stolen wives, and brothers disguised as wise birds’. Half of the stories presented here have been collected by folklorists over the past two centuries, whilst the others are reworkings of oral tales by famous Russian authors, who include Alexander Pushkin, Nadezhda Teffi, Pavel Bazhov and Andrey Platonov.

The collection has been split into seven different sections, all of which pertain to tales written by a single author, or which come under the categories of ‘The First Folktale Collections’, ‘Early Twentieth-Century Collections’ and ‘Folktale Collections from the Soviet Period’. A biography has been included for each separate author before the story or stories of theirs which are featured in Russian Magic Tales, and the majority of these talk, in some detail, about the fascinations with folklore and fairytales which have been present since many of the authors’ childhoods.

The tales themselves range from the well-known – ‘Jack Frost’ and the portrayal of the witch ‘Baba Yaga’ – to those which are firmly set within the realms of Russian culture and geography and are not so well known outside it – ‘The Tsarevna Who Would Not Laugh’, ‘The Pike’s Command’ and ‘The Stone Flower’. In this way, the sense of place created is strong from the start. Each provides a variety of different styles, from the narrative and prose techniques used to the information which they include. Pushkin’s stories are told in verse, Onchukov’s in a traditional ‘once upon a time’ format, Ozarovskaya’s in rather a matter-of-fact style and Zelenin’s sole story in the collection takes the format of a numerical list.

Magical elements of many different kinds are woven throughout the collection. From the first page we meet talking fish and birds, witches and wizards, and magical spells. All of the classic fairytale elements can be found within the book’s pages – poverty and wealth, unfairness, cruelty, death, orphans, royalty and commonfolk, the discrepancies between the young and the elderly, incest, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. There are retellings of ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Cinderella’, and although we in the English-speaking world know some of the tales relatively well, the stories are incredibly clever and provide many unexpected twists and turns.

In a story entitled ‘Vasilisa the Fair’, the darker elements of magical tales are ever present: ‘Late in the evening she came to baba yaga’s hut. Round the hut was a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth’.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov is a wonderful read for anyone interested in fairytales and folklore, or who merely wants to broaden their horizons with regard to Russian authors. A great introduction to a wealth of Russian authors is provided here, and there is sure to be a tale which will delight everyone in this collection. The stories have been ordered incredibly well, and the collection is easy to dip in and out of. Reading the volume feels both nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and Chandler has achieved just the right balance of both.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Ice Lands’ by Steinar Bragi **

The Ice Lands is the second novel by Icelandic author Steinar Bragi, a critically acclaimed poet and author in his native land.  Translated by Lorenza Garcia, the novel takes as its focus two couples, all in their thirties, who have been affected by Iceland’s financial crisis. We meet reckless Egill, recovering alcoholic Hrafn, and their partners, Anna and Vigdis.  The quartet decide to embark upon a camping trip; the weather and the poor visibility which it brings mean that the Jeep in which they are travelling crashes into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  When they meet the couple who live inside said farmhouse, the premise heightens somewhat: ‘… the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night.  As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house?  What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground?  And most importantly, will they return home?’  A Swedish publication, Corren, deemed the novel ‘Iceland’s Twin Peaks’.

9781447298816The novel’s overall review score is quite poor, I felt, standing at 2.84 out of 5 on Goodreads.  This made me a little sceptical, I must say, but I love Icelandic literature, and was determined to give it a fair chance.  I felt a definite comradeship with all of the reviewers who have marked this a two- or one-star read quite early on, however; the dialogue is rather dull, and whilst the story is what really drives the whole onwards, it has not been overly well executed.

Bragi’s opening paragraph captures Iceland’s darkness effectively, yet rather simply: ‘Over the highlands all was still.  The shadows on the horizon darkened, growing sharper against the sky, before dissolving into the night’.  Sadly, the writing never really regains this quiet power, and an inconsistency is visible throughout.  The prose is very much of the telling rather than the showing variety, which gives the whole an element of dullness, and which renders the reader (or rendered me, at least) rather impatient for something to happen.  Bragi is very matter-of-fact, and a lot of the details discussed or included feel superfluous.  It’s just quite a boring book, and excerpts of prose such as the following would encourage me to avoid the work in question: ‘Through the open door of the barn they glimpsed bales of hay wrapped in green and white plastic.  In the yard in front of the barn stood a sand-blown Willys jeep.  The old woman was crouching beside one of the wheels in a pair of grubby overalls, poking a tool under the body of the vehicle.  Clearly she was in charge of more than the housework’.

The Ice Lands had a lot of potential, due not only to its setting, but to the intrigue of its plot.  Not a great deal else occurs that is not described in the book’s blurb, and it caused this particular reader to give up around a third of the way through.  Had an author such as Halldor Laxness used a similar plot in his fiction, I imagine that it would be incredibly compelling, and quite difficult to put down.

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