Well it happened as we knew it would. We worried and dreaded our way through Spring in a mute silence broken only by newly enfranchised birds and emergency sirens. We looked forward to a potentially sickness free Summer, hoped for warmth and a chance to escape from the same view of the same four walls.
In June, the Greek Government asked citizens from the UK to kindly not visit this year which was apparently a signal for the Prime Minister’s father to leap onto a plane and go anyway, while the rest of us dreamed of bougainvillea on sunny white walls, with accompanying lizards, and wept silently.
This summer became the time that taking a train required the same courage – and roughly the same amount of kit – as climbing Mt. Everest, neither activity being advisable or even possible. Those who didn’t have to go to offices were grateful, while those who did worried.
Normal isn’t normal and nearly all escape routes are closed down by quarantine restrictions. July and August hurtled by with unprecedented temperatures (in the UK), forest fires, floods, hurricanes. It seems like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are having a bit of a laugh.
And here we are September 1st.
Mmm. Well on the book front I have made 16 out of 20 books of summer which given the rest of the above isn’t bad and five out of four books for Women in Translation month which has also ended. I can only manage six images as the new block editor makes me want to scream.
But now Summer is fleeing with its remaining unread titles and we are approaching the short and leaf strewn days of Autumn. A season of new books to read. Next up my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the fourth book in her Iowan based series which began with Gilead and Lila about the Ames/Boughton families.
I felt completely lost when I’d finished this book. I wanted it to be twice, three times as long. I wanted it to never end. I wanted to go and meet the real Edward and I particularly wanted to eat some of his delicious cooking. This is not fiction but the true story of (as described on the cover) an unexpected friendship.
What a character Edward is. A nonagenarian who cooks like an angel – and such food, apple galettes, martinis (the real ones made with gin and served in a chilled glass ) apricot souffles, poached flounder.
When the author first starts to visit Edward -a nonegenarian – she thinks she is doing a favour for his daughter who is a friend of hers. It is in fact her own life which will change.
Vincent’s story is a revelation. In an age of individualism and me-ism, there are still people choosing to live differently. Edward is one of them.
At the start of the book, he has just lost his wife Paula, aged 95. It is a remarkable thing to witness the strength of their love for each other, even though it is necessarily told at second hand.
In some ways Edward is part of another age, but he is the best part of another age, the part that still has time for courtesy and consideration. The part that believes our lives have meaning – not because of the position we hold in this or that corporation – but because of how we have regarded those we’ve befriended and those we have loved.
“The secret said Edward is to treat guests as family and family as guests. “
This book is a testament to a friendship that changed two lives and the world is a better place for it.
Dinner with Edward, Isabel Vincent. Pushkin Press. 2016
15/20 Books of Summer
Had it not been for WIT month I wouldn’t have known that there was an English translation available of Eiko Kadono’s book Kiki’s Delivery Service. For fans of Studio Ghibli or just for those who believe a big of magic helps the world go round, this delightful story about a young witch trying to make her way in the world is warm hearted reading for anyone dreading the onslaught of cold autumn winds and rain which if you live in the northern hemisphere you may currently be facing.
I haven’t reviewed any children’s literature before. This I must do more of.
Kiki is a witch and coming of age for a witch happens quite young. Batmitzvah style, coming of age is 13 for Kiki. But rather than just have a party, she is expected to leave home and make her own way in a strange town which she must find for herself, where her skills as a witch can do some good for the community.
Kiki’s broom is not strictly hers but her mother’s old one. She has a talking cat – as all good witches must – and together they fly off to find somewhere new, strange and challenging.
They land in a town called Koriko and scarcely has the broom touched down in this new and strange town by the sea than Kiki is asked to deliver a baby’s lost pacifier to an unpacified baby, which she does, and thus she achieves her first challenge and thus is born Kiki’s Delivery Service.
This book, which inspired the great film maker Miyazaki, is illustrated in black and white by Joe Todd-Stanton. Kiki ‘s Delivery Service is a complete delight from beginning to end.
Kiki’s Delivery Service. Eiko Kadano, (Penguin Random House 2020)
If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.
This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women. These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself. She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.
While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes, the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised. Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage).
Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’. Why? This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse. You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three. Never mind that in 2020, 30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.
“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”
Quite. But what whole thing? According to the author, what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself. Women are the threat.
Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner.
Feminism takes many guises. Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling. But the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling, are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t.
This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish. It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now.
Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.
Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.
Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.
“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”
This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.
Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.
Winter in Sokcho is a debut and already prizewinning novel from Elisa Shua Dusapin with a strong sense of atmosphere and place. At 154 pages it’s a quick to read and an engaging story set in the seaside resort of Sokcho on the border of South and North Korea.
A young woman works in the reception of a sparsely attended guesthouse her mother sells fish in the market:
“My mother lived at the port, above the loading bays, in one of the apartments reserved for fishmongers. Noisy, Cheap. My childhood home.”
Despite her inauspicious surroundings the narrator likes where she lives.
She has a boyfriend called Jun-oh who is off to Seoul to enroll on a modelling course (as in him becoming a model rather than making models out of clay).
Theirs is a modern relationship:
“He stood up, checked himself out in the mirror , said he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done. He turned to face me. Clinics were offering deals, by the way, I should look into it, he’d bring me some brochures for facial surgery.”
The girl’s mother seems to want her to have facial surgery too. If there is a quicker way than this to have an identity crisis I’m not sure what it is and the poor kid already has some kind of eating disorder. Interestingly another young lady – one of the few guests staying at the drab guesthouse – has her face all bandaged up, presumably as a result of having accepted one of the deals offered by the clinic.
Virginie Despentes says in her feminist text King Kong Theory (reviewed next):
“No society has ever demanded such complete submission to aesthetic diktats, so many modifications that purport to feminise the body.”
Whose ideals are we trying to live up to here? And why? This is one of the points that Dusapin makes but she does not push an agenda. Things in Sokcho simply are what they are. Take it or leave it.
A Frenchman – a comic book artist called Yan Kerrand – turns up at the guest house. We are not sure whether he will take it or leave it. He and the girl develop a semi- friendship and she accompanies him on a trip to the borderland between South and North.
This is a Korea of plastic waste and urban sprawl alongside the fishmarkets.
There is a lot of food, mostly fish, scowling, often unappetising sounding or even poisonous. The Frenchman declines the food, surviving off Dunkin’ Donuts during his stay. She is keen for him to set a story locally perhaps secretly she wants to be in the story.
I enjoyed this book, the way the landscape and Kerrand’s pen and ink drawings of it form a backdrop to the interior lives of the characters. The way he struggles to form a character – a line drawing – and how it slips frustratingly away in the composition.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin. Translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Published by Daunt Books Originals 2020
2 out of 4 Women in Translation Month
12/20 Books of Summer
Question: does anyone else find the wordpress blocks editor slow, cumbersome, non-intuitive, inflexible, clunky and boring? Or maybe its just me.
I don’t often write negative reviews. I try to avoid doing it . But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about. This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.
Review : Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books. Translated from Hebrew.
Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.
According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe. Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.
It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time. Perhaps because for most of us, thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.
So to the plot. The chief character in Surviving is Shurka. She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style – she is sternly warned about wolves. Shurka is of course beautiful and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham. They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena – who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight. An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to. Sentimental or what?
Surviving the War? No. What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts. The characters have no interior lives of their own.
The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it. And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started. Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.
Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge. ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’. Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.
The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact. Eventually, more than half way through the book, we get to the whole point of the story. Polish collaboration. Displacement.
The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto, where they find an apartment. Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah, who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met. Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere – they are like film extras, you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens. And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating. A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child. But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given. It doesn’t need such artifice.
While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:
“And what choice do we have?
To go like sheep to the slaughter?”
How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us – that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.
Well they couldn’t. That’s the point. But at last we do have a point.
German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)
asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:
“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”
A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.
I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle. The publisher does not state the name of the translator. The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.
It’s not over till the fat lady sings as Will Smith said in Independence Day. But nine titles read and only four weeks left to complete my 20 books of Summer . I have to be honest it looks like it might be 15 books of summer for the Rune.
What to do if you are already behind on your existing challenges, why take on another one of course.
During August in addition to my other challenges – both literary and non-literary – I propose taking part in Women in Translation Month. Thank you to