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Estonia (June 2018)

The second leg of our Baltic trip, featuring a lot of footage of Tallinn, as well as Viljandi (6.56), Helme (7.04), and Valga (7.22).

Music: ‘Old Haunts’ by The Gaslight Anthem | ‘Ready to Start’ by Arcade Fire

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‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink **

Like many readers, I very much enjoyed Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader when I read it quite some time ago.  For some reason, however, I had not picked up any of his other books in the intervening years.  The Woman on the Stairs, first published in German in 2014 and in English translation by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt in 2016, is described as ‘a tale of obsession, possession and a mystery painting’, and its description certainly intrigued me enough to buy it.

Just as mysteriously as a painting disappeared, it is found again, donated anonymously to a gallery in Sydney.  At this revelation, ‘the art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.’  These men, one after another, manage to track her down to a dilapidated cottage on an isolated headland near Sydney.  ‘Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past – but time is running out.’9781474600651

I did enjoy some of the descriptions in The Woman on the Stairs.  Schlink describes the painting like so: ‘A woman descends a staircase.  The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step.  The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light.  Nude, pale and blonde – against a grey-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer.  And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.’

The Woman on the Stairs is told using very short chapters, the majority of which consist of just two or three pages.  The prose here did not grab me at all; I found it rather matter-of-fact, and consequently, some of the chapters felt rather dull.  The plot was flimsy and stretched in places, particularly given the space in the novel which was devoted to certain elements.  The narrator of the piece, a self-important lawyer, did not feel realistic.  Despite the first person perspective, there was a sense of detachment and impersonality throughout.  The pace also felt problematic; it plods along from one chapter to the next, and nothing about it was particularly interesting.  I did not connect in the slightest with either the characters or the slowly ensuing story.

There is often no distinction between past and present here, and consequently, the book becomes rather muddled.  I found that there is barely any depth within The Woman on the Stairs; it is rather a superficial novel.  Indeed, there is barely anything else within the plot which is not suggested or baldly stated in the blurb.  The love story element, which was horribly inevitable, is wildly overblown, and highly rushed.

Whilst I was impressed with The Reader, there seems to be very little, if any, of the power which suffuses its plot and pages in this particular tome.  In fact, if I were to read both The Woman on the Stairs and The Reader without knowing which was the earlier book, I would select the former; it feels unpolished, and almost as though it is a first draft.  I found the novel lacklustre, and whilst I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did The Reader, I still expected that it would be well written, taut, and poignant.  Unfortunately, none of these are words which I would use describe the novel.  The prose is too plodding, and the dialogue offered very little, no matter which character was speaking.  There is no emotion here, and I have come away from the novel wondering why I bothered to read it in its entirety.

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‘Innocence’ by Penelope Fitzgerald ****

I sadly only have a couple of the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels left to read, and a few of her non-fiction books.  I purchased Innocence (1986) several months ago, but chose to leave it on my to-read shelf as a special treat to snuggle down with, rather than immediately rushing into it and then having to wait an age to find her outstanding titles.  I was moderately disappointed by Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning Offshore, but have very much enjoyed the rest of her books to date.

9780544359468A.S. Byatt calls Innocence ‘exquisite’, and The Guardian deems it ‘Delightful… a bubbling and beautiful book.’  The novel begins in 1955 in Florence, and follows the once-moneyed Ridolfi family who, ‘like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days.’  The character whom Fitzgerald has placed most focus upon is the eighteen-year-old Ridolfi daughter, Chiara.  Her vitality is ‘matched by innocence – a dangerous combination.’

Chiara has fallen head-over-heels for Salvatore Rossi, ‘a young doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one.’  Chiara, frustrated by her own progress in the matter, has to ask one of her English friends from the convent school which she attends to help her set them up.  ‘And so,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘ensues a comedy of manners, in which lovers, with the best of intentions and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another astonishingly miserable…’.  Indeed, the novel feels Shakespearean in its scope, and in the witty asides made at times.

Fitzgerald makes us aware of Chiara’s limitations when at home: ‘Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence.  Her American mother’s family had once been Scottish, her looks were northern, her delicate high colouring was suited not to a fierce climate but to the mild damp and mist of the north.  Only the lids of her blue eyes were Florentine, round and languid…  her half eager, half diffident approach to whatever came along hadn’t the ruthlessness of the ancient money-making city which in its former days had questioned the bills of the world’s greatest artists…’.  In this manner, Fitzgerald intertwines the history of the Ridolfi family, as well as the Florentine people, with the present-day stories of Chiara and her father, Giancarlo.

Fitzgerald is highly informed about Italian culture, and the differences between separate regions; this knowledge translates marvellously to the page, and makes each setting all the more vivid.  There is also a focus upon the minutiae of life, and the use of colour and sense are particularly striking throughout.  Fabric comes in shades of ‘tender grey’, the sky is a ‘darkish olive-green’, and the air is ‘damp and caressing’.   Of the Ricordanza, the secluded house in which the Ridolfis live, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The ground floor was used for storage and was lit only by two round windows.  This raising up of the front door made the whole house look unwelcoming and inaccessible.  The lemon trees in their terracotta jars, each balanced on an empty one turned upside down, dispensed their bitter green smell: their dark green leaves were startlingly fresh against the blank, bleached, cracked and faded house.’

As with her other novels, I found Innocence both shrewd and immersive.  Fitzgerald’s writing is as finely crafted as it is highly distinctive; there is a playful sharpness to it.  Full of wisdom, humour, and measured reasoning, Innocence is a wonderfully mesmeric read.

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The Book Trail: From Penelope Lively to Elie Wiesel

I am beginning this Book Trail post with a memoir which I read as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and which I very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively 9780141188324
This autobiography is about growing up in Egypt. It is also an investigation into childhood perception in which the author uses herself and her memories as an insight into how children see and know. It is a look at Eygpt up to, and including, World War II from a small girl’s point of view, which is also, ultimately, a moving and rather sad picture of an isolated and lonely little girl.

 

2. The Italics are Mine by Nina Berberova
This is the autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in St Petersburg in 1901, the only child of an Armenian father and a North Russian mother. After the Revolution, and the persecution of intellectuals which followed, she was forced to flee to Paris, where she was to remain for 25 years. There she formed part of a group of literary Russian emigres that included Gorky, Bunin, Svetaeva, Nabokov and Akhmatova, and earned a precarious living as a journalist, barely surviving the hardship and poverty of exile. In 1950 she left France for the United States to begin a new life with no money and no knowledge of English. She is now a retired Professor of Russian Literature at Princeton, and has belatedly been acclaimed for the short novels she wrote in the 1930s and ’40s.

 

251472953. Zoo or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky
While living in exile in Berlin, the formidable literary critic Viktor Shklovsky fell in love with Elsa Triolet. He fell into the habit of sending Elsa several letters a day, a situation she accepted under one condition: he was forbidden to write about love. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love is an epistolary novel born of this constraint, and although the brilliant and playful letters contained here cover everything from observations about contemporary German and Russian life to theories of art and literature, nonetheless every one of them is indirectly dedicated to the one topic they are all required to avoid: their author’s own unrequited love.

 

4. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

5. Vain Art of the Fugue by Dumitru Tepeneag 759968
Clutching a bouquet of flowers, hurrying to catch his bus, and arguing with the driver once he’s on, a man rushes to a train station platform to meet a woman. This sequence of events occurs and recurs in remarkably different variations in Vain Art of the Fugue.  In one version, the bus driver ignores the traffic signals and is killed in the ensuing crash. In another, the protagonist is thrown off the bus, and as he chases after it, a crowd of strangers joins him in the pursuit.  As the book unfolds, the protagonist, his lovers, and the people he meets become increasingly vivid and complex figures in the crowded Bucharest cityscape. Themes, conflicts, and characters interweave and overlap, creating a book that is at once chaotic and perfectly composed.

 

6. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

48109717. Little Fingers by Filip Florian
In a little town in Romania, a mass grave is discovered near the excavations of a Roman fort. Are the dead the victims of a medieval plague or, perhaps, of a Communist firing squad? And why are finger bones disappearing from the pit each night? Petrus, a young archaeologist, decides to do some investigating of his own.   Meanwhile, an Orthodox monk in the surrounding mountains stumbles into history when he becomes the father confessor of a partisan bent on bringing down the government, one handmade grenade and one derailed train at a time. Not to mention a team of Argentinean forensic anthropologists who arrive in town in a cloud of rock music, shredded jeans, and tequila.   Florian has packed real history, a religious pilgrimage, a criminal investigation, a recipe for roast pigeon, and a love story into two hundred truly remarkable pages.

 

8. The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.  He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any been added to your list?

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‘Charms for the Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons ****

I adored Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, and very much enjoyed Sights Unseen too.  Charms for the Easy Life, first published in 1993, is the author’s fourth novel.  Alice Hoffman, whose writing and stories I find have the same lovely intelligent but easygoing prose as Gibbons’, writes that the novel ‘is filled with lively humour, compassion and intimacy’.

Charms for the Easy Life tells the story of three generations of ‘fiery’ women, living without men: Charlie Kate Birch, a ‘self-proclaimed doctor who treats everything from leprosy to lovesickness with her roots and herbs’, her daughter Sophia, ‘who has inherited her mother’s wisdom and will and applies them to her desire to rule the world around her and land the man of her choice’, and granddaughter Margaret, ‘whose struggle towards adulthood is complicated by World War II’.  Margaret is the novel’s captivating narrator, and lives with her mother and grandmother in the ‘lush, green backwoods’ of North Carolina.9780060760250

As is usual with first person perspective-driven novels, we learn about the other characters through Margaret’s portrayal of them.  Charlie Kate, particularly, is strong and forward-thinking: ‘My grandmother was to be remembered for many achievements, from campaigning for in-school vaccinations to raising money to buy prosthetics for veterans of the world war, but in the Beale Street area of Raleigh she lives in the memory of an old few as the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.’  Sophia is more of a shadowy figure at times, largely absent from much of the prose.

The Birch family have historically been plagued by problems.  Their family has a remarkably high suicide rate, which is detailed in oddly beautiful prose in the first chapter.  Margaret tells us, of her remaining family members: ‘They threatened to kill themselves in the river all the time.  They used the threat in arguments with each other.  They said the words without thinking…  But they didn;t go in the river, because the river was life to them, life all surging and all crashing into white foam on river rocks they had known their whole lives, and the thought of throwing themselves into a familiar current and banging choked and goggle-eyed against rocks they had stood on and courted on and fished and dreamed on, and sat in the sun and dared to open their blouses and nurse their babies on, this was not something they could do.  They would walk fifty miles and jump in some other person’s river, but not their own.’  As is evident from this description, Gibbons creates such a vivid sense of place, and her writing feels continuously effortless.

The novel has been slotted so well into the looming threat of war; Gibbons startlingly describes conditions at the time, and is particularly involved with those lives lived without privilege, or in dire poverty.  Myriad details ground Charms for the Easy Life nicely into history, with references to popular culture, and mentions every now and again of wider conflict.  Gibbons also notes how important small changes, or transformations, in the world are to her protagonists, and how these changes translate into their own selves.  This is particularly poignant when she writes about ageing: ‘[Sophia] was showing signs of loneliness.  She had recently begun the process of resigning herself to the slide from beautiful lady to handsome older woman, adjusting her lipstick color from fire-engine red to brick, exchanging bright beads for pearls and stylish platform soles for pumps.  And by “process,” I mean just that: she had not fully committed her body to middle age yet.’

Thoughtful in its outlook, and with a fascinating and tender story about non-conformist women at its heart, Charms for the Easy Life is a novel which I would definitely recommend.  The relationships drawn here have so much complexity about them, and the story takes directions which I did not expect.  I shall close this review with a wonderful quote from the novel: ‘If my grandmother could’ve populated the world, all the people would’ve been women, and they all would’ve been just like her.’

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Books Set in New Zealand

Reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful The Colour has made me realise quite how few books I have read which are set in New Zealand.  This is clearly an oversight on my part; New Zealand has always been very high on my travel list, and I am fascinated by the culture there.  Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington, is one of my favourite all-time authors, and I also very much enjoy the work of Janet Frame, Lloyd Jones, and Eleanor Catton.  I clearly need more works set in New Zealand on my to-read pile, and thus have made a list of tomes which I am very much looking forward to picking up in the next year or so.

5271891. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (I’m hoping to read this for the 1944 Club in October)
A haunting love story set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century.  William, whose hypnotic, masculine presence made two women adore him… of Marianne, moody, passionate, brilliant, by whom William was both fascinated and repelled… of Marguerite, Marianne’s beautiful sister whom William wanted with all his heart.  They had both loved him for years. Now they were waiting for him to return from his journeys and claim his bride.

 

2. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

3. The Bone People by Keri Hulme 460635
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity.

 

4. An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
This autobiography traces Janet Frame’s childhood in a poor but intellectually intense family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals and eventual entry into the saving world of writers.

 

237252755. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.  Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.

 

6. The Piano by Jane Campion
In the award-winning film The Piano, writer/director Jane Campion created a story so original and powerful it fascinated millions of moviegoers. This novel stands independent of the film, exploring the mysteries of Ada’s muteness, the secret of her daughter’s conception, the reason for her strange marriage and the past lives of Baines and Stewart.

 

7. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale 3768628
It is 1859 in the raw township of New Plymouth where Hannah Carstairs walks between two worlds. She finds that both her worlds are changing. First there are the disturbing hints about her dead mother’s past. Then, the tensions between the Maori tribes and the settlers boil over into war.

 

8. A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Other than his dogs, what was it about these two small islands on the edge of the world that had kept him—an otherwise restless traveller—for really much longer than they seemed to deserve? Bennett thought he’d better pack his bag and find out. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite works set in, or about, New Zealand?

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