Two Days in Madrid, Five Days in Toledo and Just One Book

After a difficult winter which seemed never-ending, we were in dire need of a bit of sun and some relaxation so took ourselves off to Spain, flying to Madrid early on Thursday evening. Our second visit to the city started much like the first with a walk around the botanical gardens. Irises were in glorious full bloom then but this time it was tulips of which I’m not hugely fond – some are a little too gaudy for my taste – but the lovely watercolour exhibition from the Society of Botanical Artists together with a few particularly luxuriant camelias made up for that. The other notable difference was the frantic cacophony at the frog pond where the mating season was apparently in full swing.

We plumped for lunch at the CaixaForum just across the road. Owned by one of the big Spanish banks who go in for supporting culture in a way that I wish ours would, it was hosting an exhibition about Adolf Loos. A contemporary of the Viennese Secessionists, Loos was an architect who believed in putting humans rather than design first and as a result his architectural plans are very pleasing. Sailing Boat (Edward Hopper)

The following day was also something of a rerun, a trip to the wonderful Thyssen-Bornemisza walking past the long queue standing in the rain (yes, I’m afraid so) for the Prado. The attraction of the Thyssen is Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza’ s collection of fabulous pieces by artists you may well never have heard of. My favourite, though, is Edward Hopper’s gorgeous ‘Sailing Boat’, as lovely as I remembered it. Its radiant light made a stark contrast with the increasing gloom outside.

A thirty-minute train journey took us to the ancient walled city of Toledo and La Hacienda del Cardenal, once an 18th century bishop’s palace but now a hotel.  Hard not to gush about this place which reminded me of a Moroccan riad with its walled gardens full of secluded corners in which to lounge and rooms with touches of Moorish architecture, a welcome contrast to our hipper-than-thou Madrid gaff. These five days were to be all about taking it easy, preferably loafing in the sun but an early Easter put paid to that. Being British we were prepared: Monday’s riverside walk through an impressive gorge was taken wearing four layers and a beanie before the rain set in. We stiffened our upper lips and consoled ourselves with a particularly delicious lunch. Toledo is in Castilla-La Mancha, Don Quixote country and the home of scrumptious cheese: we didn’t find any windmills to tilt at but we did eat a lot of scrummy food, some of it Manchego. 

When we weren’t eating and it wasn’t raining, and sometimes when it was, we wandered around this beautiful city whose history can be read in many of its buildings which blur Muslim, Jewish and Christian architectural traditions, nicely exemplified in the Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, possibly the oldest in Europe, whose name Toledo stationsays it all. This pleasing Mudéjar style suggests that all three religions lived in harmony and so they did for many years but sadly the usual skirmishes, violent suppressions and massacres intermittently reared their ugly heads not least in the form of Spanish Inquisition. Other Mudéjar highlights included the Iglesia de San Román whose gracefully arched interior reminded me of the mezquita at Cordoba, the fabulous station and the tiny but near-perfect Cristo de la Luz once a mosque then a church.

Back to Madrid for our last day which ended very pleasingly, buying an American import of William Stegner’s Recapitulation at the excellent Central bookshop we’d visited four years ago. A very pleasant break, then, although not entirely what we were hoping for in the way of weather however here’s a little reminder from the entrance to Toledo’s Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes to enjoy life while you can. I suspect that’s not quite Cover imagethe message the artist intended, though.

And the book? That was Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, an erudite, absorbing brick of a book which carried me through most of the holiday. It’s about a man cursed with a genius for maths, an addictive personality and a distinct lack of humility whose son inherits the first two traits and worries about passing them on to his children. Well worth reading, but not so much that I wasn’t relieved to lose its weight from our luggage.

Books to Look Out for in May 2018: Part One

Cover imageThere are several juicy looking short story collections on offer in May, three of which I’m including in the first part of this preview kicking off with the excellent Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It which explores both the ineptitude some people display in reading others and our ability to deceive ourselves, apparently. ‘Sharp and tender, funny and wise, this collection shows Sittenfeld’s knack for creating real, believable characters that spring off the page, while also skewering contemporary mores with brilliant dry wit’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

Sittenfeld fans will remember her brilliant depiction of a First Lady, based on Laura Bush, in American Wife which leads me neatly to Amy Bloom’s White Houses, set in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife move into the presidential residence. Bloom’s novel explores the relationship between Lorena Hickock, the celebrated journalist who accompanied them, and Eleanor Roosevelt. ‘Filled with fascinating back-room politics, the secrets and scandals of the era, and exploring the potency of enduring love, it is an imaginative tour-de-force from a writer of extraordinary and exuberant talent’ say the publishers. That alone would pique my interest but I’m a huge fan of Bloom’s writing, from her short stories to novels like Lucky Us, so I have high hopes for this one.

Geir Gulliksen’s Story of a Marriage also puts a relationship under the microscope as a husband whose wife has fallen in love with another man after twenty years together tries to understand the disintegration of their marriage from her point-of-view. ‘Intense, erotic, dramatic, raw – Story of a Marriage examines two people’s inner lives with devastating and fearless honesty. It is a gripping but slippery narrative of obsession and deceit, of a couple striving for happiness and freedom and intimacy, but ultimately falling apart’ according to the publishers which sounds very ambitious to me but definitely worth a look.

Back to short stories for Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood. ‘Schutt’s sharply suspenseful and masterfully dark interior portraits of ordinary lives are shot through with surprise and, as Ottessa Moshfegh has it, “exquisitely weird writing”’ say AndOtherStories who are publishing this collection as part of their response to Kamila Shamsie’s provocation exhorting publishers to release only books by women. ‘Exquisitely weird’ could go either way for me.Cover image

I’m bookending this post with the third short story collection of the month from the late master of the craft. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose.

That’s it for the first instalment of May’s new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you wish to know more. Part two to follow at the end of the week with not a short story collection in sight.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Memoirs of a Geisha to Capital #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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I’m somewhat late to this month’s party, having spent a week in Spain (more of which next week). We’re starting with Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha which took the bestseller charts by storm back in the late ‘90s. Although I’ve read it, I can’t say it stands out in my memory.

Given the Japanese connection I can’t resist linking to a book by one of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami. Last month I wrote a Blast from the Past post about one of his wackiest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase. To balance that I’ve chosen South of the Border, West of the Sun, a much more accessible pieces of fiction about a happily married man forced to remember his past when his childhood sweetheart reappears.

Cats pop up all over the place in Murakami’s fiction which takes me to Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly pared-back The Guest Cat about a reclusive young couple who open up their home and hearts to a stray cat and are then faced with the prospect of moving. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely book.

Cats are not known for paying their way as opposed to Sarah Waters’ characters in  The Paying Guests which sees an impoverished war widow and her daughter reluctantly take in lodgers. Lots of readers loved Waters’ first twentieth-century set novel but I much prefer her Victorian pastiches.

One of the best examples of Victorian pastiche I’ve read is Charles Pallisers’ The Quincunx which I pulled off the shelves earlier in the year for H who was recovering from a nasty chest infection. It’s many years since I read it but I do remember it has a satisfyingly convoluted plot and an equally pleasing unreliable narrator.

I haven’t read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series but H tells me I really should given that I’m a fan of state of the nation novels. Made up of six separate books, the series was once known as the Parliamentary Novels and was adapted for TV back in the days before the BBC thought it was a good idea to condense a long piece of fiction into four parts.

Which leads me to a more recent state of the nation novel of which there are many to choose from but I’m plumping for John Lanchester’s Capital because of its clever premise – surveying the nation through the fortunes of one London street just after the global financial collapse of 2008.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an ageing woman’s memories of her life as a geisha in early twentieth-century Japan to a single London street holding up a mirror to my own nation in 2008. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

Women by Chloe Caldwell: The anatomy of an affair

Cover imageChloe Caldwell’s debut first caught my eye on Twitter, not with a storm of insistent shoutyness but a definite buzz. I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm in the face of unbridled Twitter delight but Women’s synopsis put me in mind of Sylvia Brownrigg’s riveting Pages for You which was followed last year by the slightly disappointing Pages for Her. Caldwell’s novella charts her narrator’s passionate, destructive affair with a woman much older than herself, ending just a year after it began.

Our unnamed straight narrator is living in her childhood home with her mother when she first meets Finn at a reading in the city. Both women are highly literary: our narrator is a successful young writer while Finn is a librarian, nineteen years her senior and long settled into a relationship. Three months later, our narrator moves to the city, determined to wean herself off her opiate habit, and begins a friendship with Finn which develops into an intense affair. Their time together is spent in each other’s beds while time apart is punctuated by a constant stream of texts and emails. Both are obsessed but Finn has much to lose. Our narrator slips into a self-destructive pattern which encompasses bouts of mania, tantrums and obsession. When Finn begins to extract herself from this relationship which has consumed them both our narrator becomes paralysed with grief until, just a year after Finn left a message on her Facebook page, she returns home.

Women is a short novella, a mere 130 pages – fewer if you consider its fragmented structure, some pages taken up with just a short paragraph. It could almost pass as a lengthy short story but for all that it took me far longer to read than I had expected. There’s a feverish intensity about the first-person narrative which makes it feel raw and confessional, all the more so given that Caldwell has made no secret of drawing on her own experience for this book. Her stripped down, plain writing emphasises the toxic passion of this affair which threatens to rip both women apart. We’re left wondering if this is love or simply the frisson of dabbling in a world about which our narrator knows nothing. Finn, it seems, is in no doubt, answering emphatically man when asked if she thinks our narrator will end up with a man or a woman. We know that our narrator is of the unreliable variety very early on: given the novella’s autobiographical element, let’s hope that means Finn is in heavy disguise.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2018: Part Two

Cover imageWhereas the first part of April’s paperback preview had its feet firmly planted in the States, this second instalment wanders around Europe beginning in the UK with Elizabeth Day’s The Party. Scholarship boy Martin Gilmour meets Ben Fitzmaurice at Burtonbury School, becoming firm friends with him despite their wildly differing backgrounds. Over the next twenty-five years, these two are bound together both by friendship and by a secret about Ben that Martin is determined to keep. However, as the blurb hints, things may be about to change when ‘at Ben’s 40th birthday party, the great and the good of British society are gathering to celebrate in a haze of champagne, drugs and glamour’. Sebastian Faulks is quoted as finding it ‘witty, dark and compelling’.

Over the North Sea in Denmark, Ellinor, the recently widowed narrator of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy, stands in front of her dearest friend Anna’s grave and tells her about the death of Georg who was once Anna’s husband before she died in a skiing accident together with her lover, Henning, then Ellinor’s partner. Ellinor and Georg had been married for decades but she’s never quite shrugged off the feeling that she’s leading Anna’s life. Now that he’s dead there’s no one she wishes to talk to except Anna. At the heart of this quietly powerful, beautifully crafted novella is a loving, forgiving friendship. It may be a meditation on love and loss yet the title is a reminder that life goes on.

East across the Baltic to Latvia for Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating in which Seb takes himself off to the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda after she drowns in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with are explored in this witty and original piece of fiction which has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject.

We’re turning back on ourselves and heading for Ireland with Molly McCloskey’s When Light is Like Water which rounds off April’s paperbacks. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman. Decades later, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp and blindsided with grief at her mother’s death, Alice finds herself obsessively thinking about her brief marriage.

That’s it for April’s second batch of paperbacks. A click on the first title will take you to a more detailed synopsis and to my reviews for the last three should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks they’re here. New titles are here.

Magnetism by Ruth Figgest: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageThere’s a puff from Patrick Gale on the jacket of Ruth Figgest’s debut. It’s not one of those slightly gushy quotes with a few too many superlatives to feel sincere. It simply says ‘Ruth Figgest knows how to make a story’ which at first may seem too far the other way but by the time I finished Magnetism it felt precisely right: this is an expertly spun story about a mother and daughter apparently locked into a dysfunctional relationship which seems to consist of a lifelong argument.

Erica and her mother live many miles apart. When she gets a call from a neighbour telling her that Caroline has died, she drops everything, catching a flight to the home she is used to visiting whenever there’s a crisis or a holiday. Her father died many years ago and her mother had long hoped that Erica would move back to Arizona from Oklahoma. Now fifty-three, divorced, childless and orphaned, Erica is left only with her mother’s despised poodle to care for. Figgest’s novel traces Erica’s story, opening with her first episode of mental illness, aged sixteen, and ending on a note of excited hope.

Such a slight synopsis makes this novel sound a little hackneyed, trite even, but what marks Magnetism out is the skill with which Figgest reels back the years, telling Erica’s story backwards, from the news of her mother’s death to her parents’ wedding when Caroline was pregnant with Erica. It’s a structure that could easily backfire if handled sloppily but Figgest is too deft for that, dropping clues and hints into Erica’s narrative which are neatly clarified later. The relationship between Erica and her mother is acutely observed and painfully dysfunctional: the hypercritical Caroline never misses an opportunity to mention Erica’s weight, smuggling diet books into the hospital after her daughter’s suicide attempt; the pubescent Erica is whisked off to the plastic surgeon for a nose job. Yet they love each other. Erica is a convincing narrator but we know, of course, there’s another side to the story, left for the reader to infer as Caroline’s character is revealed along with the difficulties she’s faced and the secrets she’s kept. All of this is underpinned with a pleasingly black humour. A very clever and satisfying piece of storytelling which ends with the hope of liberation.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Love, loss and connection

Cover imageI’ve a somewhat chequered history with Donal Ryan’s writing. While I enjoyed The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December I couldn’t work up the ecstatic enthusiasm so many other readers were voicing. Then I read All We Shall Know which made it on to my 2016 books of the year list. It’s early days, but I’m pretty sure From a Low and Quiet Sea will do the same this year. Ryan’s carefully crafted, moving novella tells the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end.

Farouk watches his wife through their kitchen window, resenting her apparent flirtation with a people trafficker. Martha had not wanted to leave Syria but as the casualties pile up in Farouk’s hospital she’s been persuaded, telling their young daughter they’re off on an adventure. Lampy helps out at the local care home, driving the minibus, changing the sheets and listening to the residents while trying not to think of the girl who’s left him. He’s already let fly at his sharp-tongued, pleased-with-himself grandfather at breakfast, calmed by his mother, the only parent he’s ever known. John is making his confession, the first honest one he’s made since childhood. He’s a big wheel in the town, a fixer, deeply scarred by the loss of his golden brother who died when John was thirteen. There’s much to confess, from the systematic corruption of good men to the murder of his lover’s boyfriend. These three come together in a surprising way in the book’s fourth and final section.

It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does in this novella which explores love, loss and connection. He’s a writer who excels at characterisation. Each of his main protagonists has a very different voice: the sober melancholy of Farouk; the quick-to-anger stream of consciousness of Lampy and John’s shocking yet deadpan confession. Even the bit-part players are acutely observed. Ryan’s characteristic sharp ear for speech is often accompanied by a pleasing humour: the ceaseless litany of the old men’s complaint on the bus and their shouting of advice at Lampy when it breaks down is a fine example. His prose has a lilting rhythmic beauty, particularly in Farouk’s story, offset by the colourful vernacular of Pop’s self-regarding anecdotes. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few of my favourites:

He flipped onto his back and looked at the long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping

Talking to herself in a way that would seem strange to anyone not used to hearing her; laughing here and there at some recollection, some good story she’d been told and had kept to herself, for times she was without company

His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two

Now I understand what all the fuss was about.

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (transl. Margita Gailitis): Freedom at last

A new Peirene is always a treat but I was particularly keen to read Soviet Milk written by a Latvian author born in 1969, twenty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall which resulted in her country’s liberation. I visited the Baltic states several years ago and was struck by each of the three countries’ proud independence, undercut by a jitteriness in the face of Putin’s predatory gaze. Nora Ikstena’s novella opens in the year of her birth, telling the story of a mother and daughter whose relationship echoes their country’s tumultuous history.

When the unnamed twenty-five-year-old mother gives birth to her daughter, no one knows who the father might be. She’s an intense, naïve young woman, a doctor who had wanted to be a scientist but found herself working on a maternity ward. In 1944, her own mother had hidden her in a suitcase from the soldiers who pursued her father, pillaging their house. The mother grows up in Riga, rejecting her stepfather when she finds her own father alive. After she gives birth, she disappears for five days until her milk dries up. The daughter is raised by her grandparents, her mother caught up in her work, spending little time with her daughter and subject to crushing periods of depression. When she admits that she has helped a woman become pregnant by artificial insemination, the mother is exiled to a small country clinic taking her daughter with her. Over the years, mother and daughter grow closer, a quiet love blossoming between them, but the daughter moves away, returning to her grandparents in Riga, visiting her mother increasingly rarely as she scents freedom on the air.

Ikstena alternates the mother and daughter’s first-person narratives so that we see both sides of this relationship, at first cold and distant then becoming closer until the daughter becomes the centre of her mother’s shrinking life. Both characters are unnamed making it a little confusing at first but once you’re attuned to their different voices, the novella flows beautifully. It’s easy to read this as a parable: the mother chained to a state that dictates and punishes, unable to countenance the possibility of freedom while her daughter reaches out for it eagerly. There are several extended metaphors to this effect which if clumsily handled could have made the novel a somewhat creaky read but Ikstena and her translator are much more skilful than that, and the writing is often striking: In Leningrad we shuffled along on the thin ice of freethinking chills with its implication of risks taken, disasters courted. Ikstena paints a picture of a country freed from the tyranny of Nazi occupation only to find itself under Stalin’s boot. Shortages, brutality, careful circumspection and fear are its backdrop which never swamps the relationship between the two women. Soviet Milk is both polished and moving; a love story between a reluctant mother torn by anguish at the state of her country and a daughter who looks to the future with hope. It ends in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Latvia’s longed-for freedom on the horizon.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover imageThis may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.