Eighteen Days in Central Europe and Two Books

20160903_101714Bear with me – this is likely to turn into a long post.  After last year’s successful jaunt in the Baltic states H and I decided that this year we’d take to the central European railways. We started in Berlin where, after two winter trips visiting a multitude of museums, we hoped to explore the city’s many green spaces. Beautiful weather on our first day saw us heading off to the Grunewald woods, a short S-Bahn ride away from central Berlin, along with lots of Berliners out enjoying the last days of summer, not to mention their dogs who may have popped into Pets’ Deli for a lip-smacking plate of fresh meat on their way for a swim. We spent the next few days walking our socks off – setting the tone for the rest of the holiday – admiring Berlin’s elegant architecture and parks with a trip out to Potsdam, a sweet little town half an hour away, where we had a nosy around the Russian colony with its gingerbread houses and large orchards. On one of our evening walks we stumbled upon Dussmann‘s a fabulous bookshop: three packed floors including a very respectably stocked English section.

Dresden was our next stop, full of florid architecture some of it rebuilt after the war when much 20160907_131108of the city was fire bombed, including the Lutheran Frauenkirche which we visited along with umpteen other tourists. It would have been stunning without being told of its reconstruction but knowing that most of it had been painstakingly put back together using the rubble of its bombed ruins made it quite breathtaking. The beginnings of a heat wave curtailed our plans a little but we managed to fit in a lunch at the resplendently tiled and curlicued Pfunds Molkerai plus a look around the hipster Kunsthofpassage, its walls adorned with mosaics and murals.

The Molkerai would fit nicely into Karlovy Vary, a hilly Czech spa town packed with extravagant architecture including some lovely art nouveau buildings, where we spent the weekend: Bath with knobs on as H put it or as le Corbusier, perhaps a little more elegantly, dubbed it ‘a rally of cakes’. A favourite with Russians, it was stuffed with blingy shops but we loved it.

20160913_121215Onto Prague where it was beautiful but blisteringly hot. It wasn’t my first visit but a sprained ankle on the Charles Bridge put the kybosh on that particular holiday. This visit was much more successful. We spent most of our time wandering around admiring  Prague’s many stunning buildings. Look up is the thing to do – even some of the grimmest shop fronts are graced with fabulously ornamented facades on their upper floors

We’d booked two nights in Brno the Czech Republic’s second city, hoping to visit the Villa 20160915_130608TugendhatMies van de Rohe‘s modernist masterpiece which inspired Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. I’d been trying to reserve places for us on a guided tour for four months with no luck. Undeterred we set off anyway and were rewarded with a delightfully laid back day, very welcome after the seething masses of Prague. The villa is gorgeous, a work of genius. All white walls and glass it seems to float above the ground. Although we weren’t able to go inside we were allowed to wander around the garden pressing our noses to the window to see the equally lovely interior. The villa was the draw for us but there are a multitude of other things to see in Brno, so many that we regretted having booked only two nights. Definitely a place to revisit on another expedition.

20160918_160930Our arrival in Slovakia’s Bratislava for our last few days coincided with the EU summit rubbing salt in our Brexit wounds. It’s a sweet little town but truth be told we’d both tired of it within a day or so. A boat trip out to Danubiana, the city’s beautiful modern art showcase with its sculpture garden stuffed full of goodies, cheered us up no end. As part of their Miró exhibition they’d hit on the idea of mocking up his studio, which we’d visited in Palma last year, displaying several of his paintings as if he’d just completed them. It’s a great exhibition – vibrant tactile tapestries, sculpture and paintings all demonstrating the supreme talent of the man.

Given Bratislava’s limited charms and a late flight home from Vienna we decided to catch a morning train and spend our last afternoon there, despite a slightly disappointing visit earlier in the year. Lunch, a bit of culture at the Albertina then a plate of kaisershmarrn rounded off the holiday nicely. It was a wonderful trip, made easy by the spiffy transport links in the countries through which we traveled and their excellent websites. All credit and thanks due to H who painstakingly put it together.

And the books? Not much reading was done with so much hopping on and off trains plus researching the next destination but two stand out. My favourite was Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, a very funny novel which lampoons the pretensions of the old families of the American South – loudly proclaimed Civil War connections, class, old v. new money – ending on a suitably histrionic note. Totally inappropriate for where we were but very enjoyable. Much more relevant was Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans. Originally published in 1958, Litvinoff’s first novel explores the legacy of the Second World War through the story of Martin Stone, visiting Berlin for the first time since he fled the Nazis with his parents aged nine. It’s an interesting period piece, enlightening and atmospheric for me having spent the first few days of the holiday in the city but cringe-makingly heavy-handed in its writing.

Back to real life for us both now, and back to books for the blog next week.

Books to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageBack from my travels in central Europe – more of that later in the week – with a look at what’s on offer in October’s publishing schedules. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my books of last year: elegant, beautifully expressed and deftly translated, this slim novella encapsulated the life of an ordinary man, revealing it to be far richer than you might expect. October sees the publication of The Tobacconist, a second novel by Seethaler in translation. Set in 1937 with Austria about to be annexed by Germany, it’s about seventeen-year-old Franz, apprenticed to a Viennese tobacconist, who forms a bond with a certain Mr Freud.

Like Seethaler, Per Petterson writes in beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose. His new novel, Echoland, is about twelve-year-old Arvid on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End seems to step quite a way out of his usual territory heading off to Tennessee in the 1850s where Thomas McNulty has signed up for the US Army. Fleeing terrible hardship, he and his comrade John Cole fight first in the Indian Wars then the Civil War. ‘Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten’ promise the publishers. Hoping for more of that lyrical writing I’ve enjoyed in Barry’s previous novels. nicotine

I wish I could say I’d also enjoyed Nell Zink’s novels but I’ve yet to read one so it may seem a little odd to include Nicotine in this preview. It’s ‘the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores’ in the book’s blurb that’s caught my eye. Penny Baker’s rebellion has taken the form of conventionality, the only option left open to her after an upbringing by Norm who runs a psychedelic ‘healing centre’. When Norm dies, Penny finds that the house he’s left her is occupied by a bunch of squatters united ‘in the defence of smokers’ rights’. Before too long she’s caught up in their cause, battling against her much older half-brothers to protect the fervent campaigners. It sounds great but I really must get around to the other two Zinks sitting on my shelf.

Surrounded by a good deal of brouhaha, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates 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’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, at least I hope so, with Ali Smith’s Autumn which sounds a little experimental. I was defeated by the blurb for Smith’s last novel, How to Be Both, and it looks like I may well be again with this one. It is, apparently, ‘a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means’. It’s the first instalment in a quartet named Seasonal – ‘four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves’. There we are then.

That’s it for October. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

Blasts from the Past: Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2003)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

There was something about Buddha Da’s blurb that instantly appealed to me: ‘a working-class Glaswegian man who discovers Buddhism, rejects old habits and seeks a life more meaningful, only to alienate his immediate family in the process.’  Jimmy McKenna becomes interested in Buddhism after chatting to a monk in a Glasgow café. He’s a painter and decorator, a bit of an unlikely convert but soon he’s off on weekend retreats much to the bemusement of his family. Donovan unfolds the story from the point of view of Jimmy, his wife and their eleven-year-old daughter both of whom struggle with the concept of Jimmy’s new found fervour after years of self-professed atheism not to mention drunken high-jinks. It’s very funny but it does have serious things to say about tolerance and the way we lead our lives.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed Buddha Da for the originality of its storyline alone but what really singled it out for me was the dialect in which it’s written, nailed beautifully by Donovan. So successful was it that I found myself with a Glaswegian voice in my head for at least a week after finishing the book. Quite an achievement given that I’ve never set foot in the city. I was reminded of it after reading Helen MacKinven’s post on writing in the vernacular a few months after she published her debut, Talk of the Toun, which, as its title suggests, is written in the Ayshire dialect she grew up with. There’s a real skill to that kind of writing as anyone who’s read a cringe-makingly poor version of it will know only too well.

That’s it from me for a while. We’re off to the airport in an hour or so, on our way to Berlin from where we’ll be setting off on our train travels for a few weeks.  Happy reading!

The Golden Age by Joan London: The healing power of love

Cover imageBoth Joan London’s previous novels – Gilgamesh and The Good Parents – stand out for me as fine examples of clean, elegant writing, free of unnecessary ornament. Both also share the theme which runs through The Golden Age: the plight of the outsider, or in this case, outsiders. Frank is the thirteen-year-old son of Jewish-Hungarian parents, refugees settled in 1950s Australia. He and Elsa are patients recovering from polio in a children’s convalescent home, both of them now shunned by society. Set in the years immediately before the discovery of an effective polio vaccination, London’s novel quietly and compassionately explores the far-reaching effects of this devastating illness.

Converted from an old pub on the outer edge of suburban Perth, the Golden Age is Frank’s second rehabilitation home. He left the first shortly after the death of Sullivan, the eighteen-year-old who had shown him the way to what he is convinced is his vocation as a poet. Frank is a determined boy, zipping around the Golden Age in his wheelchair, wanting to know what’s going on and zeroing in on Elsa who, like him, is one of the oldest patients. Frank’s parents came to Australia from a refugee camp in Vienna, both scarred by the war. Elsa’s mother struggles with her strong-minded sister-in-law while her father is the one who visits Elsa. Frank and Elsa draw closer together then they are to their families, sharing confidences and coming to an understanding that their futures will not be quite as they had planned. Life at the Golden Age is lived in a bubble, the background hum of the Netting factory sending the children to sleep at night under the quietly watchful eye of Sister Penny, to be woken next morning for their rehabilitation routines. This peaceful rhythm is broken when Frank and Elsa’s relationship wanders into territory deemed inappropriate by the institution’s governors.

London’s story is told largely from Frank’s perspective, punctuated by his memories of life in wartime Budapest and his friendship with Sullivan. Her characters are beautifully observed, fleshed out with lightly yet clearly sketched detail: Frank’s father’s feelings of dislocation and loss; Nurse Penny’s compassionate care of the children and her occasional escape into sex; Ida’s struggle to keep Frank safe in Budapest and her disappointment with Australia. The writing is gracefully restrained yet often vivid: ‘Soon, in a bright swarm they would descend on the children and leave them splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark’ beautifully describes the young nurses preparing the children for bed; ‘There was something lonely yet resolute about the way they stood there. It was not quite hope’ remembers Frank of his parents on board the ship bound for Australia. The aloneness of these children is achingly apparent as they share their ‘onset stories’, knowing that the healthy have stigmatised them and their families out of terror of being struck down themselves. London’s novel conveys the horror and sadness of this terrible illness with great humanity offering the solace of love and hope of recovery.

The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston: Enduring love

Cover imageI was undecided about Billie Livingston’s novel at first. There was something about the jacket that made me think it might be a little slushy, a little too ‘heartwarming’. Then once I’d started it, every character seemed to have so many punches thrown at them that I faltered again but Livingston somehow managed to draw me in to this story of a couple, struggling to deal with the worst tragedy life can deal a parent. Maggie and Ben have separated after losing their child, each of them trying to find a way to cope, neither of them managing to do so.

Ben is a chauffeur, ferrying around the rich and not so famous while Maggie cleans houses for elderly women and keeps them company. Both have faced a great deal of difficulty in their lives. Ben’s mother walked out on the family when he was ten, unable to put up with his drunken father, leaving Ben with his younger brother now constantly in some kind of trouble. Maggie’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was fifteen leaving her and her older brother Francis to fend for themselves. Regularly rescued by nuns from the neighbourhood bullies, Francis has become a priest albeit one incapable of remaining celibate or sober. Ben and Maggie are dancing in their kitchen, a little the worse for wear, on Ben’s thirty-fifth birthday when their two-year-old son falls from a window. When the novel opens, Ben is on a psychiatric ward with a bullet hole in his head while Maggie is attempting to find her way back into employment. Returning from her first interview, she finds that Francis has  disgraced himself, inadvertently becoming a YouTube star into the bargain. Livingston’s novel teases out Ben and Maggie’s stories raising the hope that somehow these two will find a way back to each other.

Livingston deftly weaves vivid memories from their childhoods and their life together into Ben and Maggie’s alternating narratives. Of the two Maggie’s is the more engaging with some star turns from her brother Francis, the deeply flawed priest adored by his parishioners despite his drunken YouTube hit. Maggie’s memories of her little boy are particularly poignant but Livingston steers well clear of the sentimental keeping her narratives sharp and gritty. For me there was a bit too much in the way of misery for both of these characters but it’s leavened with a few hefty helpings of redemption and a little dark humour. Altogether an enjoyable read, and not in the least bit slushy.

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Identity and not belonging

Cover imageI read Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut immediately after Sara Taylor’s The Lauras. Both deal with themes of identity and the parent/child relationship but whereas Taylor’s novel had me foxed as to how to refer to her determinedly androgynous narrator, things are very much more straightforward with Buchanan’s protagonists. After his Canadian father dies en route to meet his new granddaughter, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was six. Singled out as an oddity at school, she’s astonished when she’s taken up by the streetwise, beautiful Odile. These two trawl the bars, Odile intent on filching money from her admirers’ pockets, eventually meeting Trench Coat as Yuki dubs the young man who gives Odile her start in the modelling world. Edison, his unlikely companion, fades into the background, turning up years later when Yuki begins a life class, hoping to find her artistic compass. Yuki manages to persuade her parents to let her live with Odile and her mother rather than return with them to Japan ten years after their arrival. As Odile’s career takes off, Yuki finds herself a job as a receptionist, helped along by Lou on whom she develops a crush after he encourages her artistic aspirations. These two slip into a relationship, staying together far too long – Yuki wrestling with her feelings of nothingness and the need to find an artistic outlet, Lou hefting a chip on his shoulder and taking it out on Yuki. When things finally come to an end, Edison hopes to fill the gap but it seems the chasm of nothingness in Yuki is too great. Yuki’s story is interspersed with that of her son, bereft of the father he had hoped would teach him how to parent his own baby daughter and filled with resentment at his mother who he manages to track down to Berlin.

Buchanan unfolds her story from Yuki’s perspective, interpolating Jay’s reluctant preparations for meeting his mother and his struggles with new parenthood into the narrative. Her writing is often striking: a flasher wears ‘a fedora and a thin beige raincoat, like a cartoon detective’; yellow paint is ‘the colour of streetlights on puddles at night, pickled yellow radish and duck beaks’; when Yuki moves in with Lou, Odile’s mother – Lou’s erstwhile lover – ‘didn’t offer to return the money Yuki’s father had paid for the year. But then again, they were both thieves. Yuki had pocketed the flavour of Lou’s smile and she wasn’t giving it back’. Of the two strands, Yuki’s is the most involving, her aching feelings of nothingness vividly conveyed. At first Jay’s story seems like an abrupt interruption but as the novel progresses his narrative thread feels more neatly woven in. The book’s poignancy is leavened with a wry humour, occasionally downright comic – the vision of Jay’s hairless therapy cat, prescribed as a cure for his fainting fits, all done up in her ‘festive sweater’ will stay with me for some time. Buchanan ends her novel satisfyingly, deftly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Altogether a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable novel. I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

The Lauras by Sara Taylor: One name, many stories

Cover imageSara Taylor’s debut, The Shore, was a masterclass in storytelling: a set of stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia which were so closely interconnected that it read like a novel. The Lauras is also stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they criss-cross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. Alex is determinedly androgynous, unwilling to be assigned to either gender. This as you can imagine makes writing a synopsis well-nigh impossible so, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else and because I’m a woman, I’m going to refer to Alex using female personal pronouns. Clearly, identity is something Taylor wants her readers to think about.

Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, half-way through yet another noisy parental row. She’s packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. Shortly after they set off, Alex’s mother withdraws wads of cash from an ATM, cuts up her credit cards and tosses her phone out of the car window leaving Alex under no illusion that she wants to be found. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out at work annotated with cryptic messages – ‘dead girl found in bath tub’; ‘crazy Laura, kissing Laura’ and the more prosaic ‘where I learned to drive’ – amongst the many ‘group home’ and ‘foster home’ locations where Alex’s mother grew up. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises fulfilled and debts repaid. Alex misses her father, surreptitiously sending him postcards when she can. When, finally, they reach their destination, Alex must make a decision.

Alex tells her own story – niftily avoiding any shenanigans with that personal pronoun – making sure to remind us now and again that she’s an unreliable narrator, that her memory may be faulty, that the past is just another story we tell ourselves. She’s a convincing character, often uncomfortable in her adolescent skin yet engaging and sometimes funny. Taylor’s writing is every bit as striking as it was in The Shore: ‘because I had chosen to give chase, sleep stuck its thumb out, leaving me still on the hard ground, listening to the hum of cars go past’ thinks Alex trying to sleep rough after an unhappy hitchhiking incident. The stories Alex’s mother tells are vivid and riveting, revealing a life far more eventful that Alex could ever have imagined. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness. There’s always a little apprehension when picking up a second novel by an author whose first is as entrancing as The Shore was for me but The Lauras more than lives up to that promise.