Tag Archives: Echoes of the City

Travels From My Sofa: Scandinavia

If 2020 had gone according to plan I’d have posted about our four-day break in the lovely city of Ghent in March and we’d be enjoying ourselves in Northern Italy right now. So strange are the times we’re living in that I’m just relieved that everyone I know is safe rather than disappointed but I can’t help missing the joys of travel so I’ve decided to revisit a few holidays, throwing in links to books I’ve reviewed, some from countries I’ve visited, others I‘d like to visit. If you fancy a change of scene, you’re welcome to join me. This time we’re off to Scandinavia beginning with Sweden.

If memory serves me right, and it often doesn’t these days, our Swedish road trip was in 2004 or thereabouts, beginning with a flight to Copenhagen. We started off in Skåne having crossed the bridge which would become so famliar to us from Saturday nights watching Saga Noren solving cimes in her own inimitable way. It’s a lovely area but what I most remember is our wonderfully eccentric B&B landlady, often to be found in her kitchen with one of her parrots on her head. She also had two gorgeous dogs who liked to sprawl in the sun. From there we headed to Gothenburg, a very pleasant city Feskekorka (Gothenburg)memorable for its fish restaurants one of which is housed in Feskekôrka, a smart modern market whose Swedish name translates as the fish church telling you all you need to know about the importance of fish to the town. The rest of the holiday was spent touring the Bohuslän archipelago with its pretty coastal villages, one famous for its inhabitants wearing their dressing gowns around town, before heading south. Our last stop was Malmö, slick and modern in comparison to picturesque Ystad, a stone’s throw away and home to Inspector Waliander, where I remember having tea in a lovely book-lined café before heading back to Copenhagen and home.

Swedish travels from my sofa: Astrid and Veronika, Wilful Disregard, In Every Moment We Are Alive, A Summer with Kim Novak

Louisiana (Copenhagen)Apart from briefly passing through on our way to Sweden, we’ve visited Denmark twice, each time a winter break in Copenhagen, both of which included a visit to the wonderful Louisiana, a beautifully designed modern gallery, crammed with all manner of treats. Given that both trips were in February, there wasn’t much chance of exploring the sculpture park which makes me want to add a summer trip to our travel list. Much of the rest of our time was spent hanging out in cafes and strolling around the much-gentrified harbour area, although I do remember a trip to a gallery exhibiting exquisite Persian miniatures and a visit to Christiana, a large commune established in 1971. Despite the city’s best efforts to shut it down, Christiana’s residents finally managed to gain a legal foothold in 2012.Cover image

Danish travels from my sofa: Often I Am Happy, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,

I fell in love with the laid-back elegance of Helsinki while taking advantage of a free hotel room courtesy of a conference H attended in 2006. It was August, a lovely time to explore the city where, oddly enough, I saw my first red squirrel in the botanical gardens. I remember spending a great deal of time in Alvar Aalto’s beautifully designed bookshop, opened in 1969, which on that visit was fantastically well-stocked but sadly depleted nine years later when we revisited the city at the end of our trip around the Baltics. We enjoyed it just as much the second time around, marvelling at the Friday night cavalcade of vintage American cars on our last evening’s walk and wondering if it was a regular event.

Cover imageFinnish travels from my sofa: Letters From Klara, The Winter War, The Summer House

I’ve yet to go to Norway, although I hope I will some day. The gorgeous scenery shots in the Scandi crime TV series Twin and Wisting have whetted my appetite and I’ve long fancied a few nights in Bergen. I have visited it from my sofa, though, thanks to several memorable novels set there: Love, The Waiter, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, The Sunlit Night, Echoes of the City

Remembering holidays may be as close as I get to having one in 2020 but if that’s the worst thing that happens during this strange year we’re living through I’ll count myself lucky.

Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen (transl. Don Bartlett): ‘This is a city so small everyone has the same shadow’

Cover imageNorway is the one Scandinavian country I’ve yet to visit, slightly put off by reports of ruinous expense and rain, although I’m sure I’ll go at some stage. It’s part of the reason I was attracted to Lars Saabye Christensen’s first instalment of a planned trilogy, Echoes of the City, set in post-war Oslo where he was born. Opening in 1947, Christensen’s novel takes us to the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department, telling the story of the city’s emergence from war time austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours.

Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son. Jesper’s a little difficult. Restless and given to sudden inexplicable tantrums, he’s a year late starting school. Ewald tends to avoid spending time alone with him if he can, preferring to call in at the Hotel Bristol with his colleagues where the melancholy Enzo plays piano, but when Maj volunteers for the local Red Cross he has no choice. Maj has a talent for accounts and is soon elected treasurer raising hopes that the family might be shunted up the telephone waiting list so that they are no longer summoned upstairs to Fru Vik’s. Maj and Fru Vik have a slightly uneasy relationship. Fru Vik is a little withdrawn, still mourning her husband, but Maj needs her to look after Jesper now and again. When Jesper starts school, he finds it hard to make friends until Jostein, the butcher’s son, deaf thanks to a trolley-bus accident, sits next to him. Jesper begins to ‘hear’ for Jostein and a friendship begins. Over the next few years Jesper will display a talent for the piano, fostered by Enzo, Fru Vik will find a companion despite a good deal of opposition and uneasiness, Maj will shine as the Red Cross treasurer and Ewald will discover just how much he loves his family.

Let us continue, not that there is any rush; on the contrary, we have plenty of time. But to those who wish to accompany us, please adjust to our pace

Echoes of the City begins with a prologue which sees Jesper about to set off to sea on September 22nd, 1957, the day after Norway’s King Hakkon died, then winds back to 1947 as Christensen takes up the Kristoffersens’ story, appending Red Cross meeting minutes to the end of each chapter. It’s a structure that works better than I thought it might at first, providing a backdrop of social history to the lives of Fagerborg’s inhabitants. Christensen’s narrative slips from character to character with ease, while keeping its focus on the Kristoffersens. It’s infused with a gentle, affectionate humour – the Red Cross ladies are a wee bit put out when gratitude for their help is unforthcoming, Jesper is utterly horrified at finding his father naked in all his fatness – coupled with poignancy as the characters’ stories unfold.

As promised in the prologue, this is slow storytelling, carefully constructed, and all the better for it. These are people we come to know and want to meet again. It’s a novel that reads like a love letter both to Oslo and the Red Cross whose role was so important in helping the city pick itself back up again. I’m already looking forward eagerly to the second instalment but in the meantime Grant at 1streading’s blog has recommended The Half-Brother to bridge the gap.

Maclehose Press: London 2019 9780857059154 464 pages Paperback

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part One

This October sees a nicely varied selection of tempting new titles on offer including one by an author whose name I’ve been hoping to spot in the publishing schedules for some time. I loved Mary Costello’s quietly beautiful Academy Street, one of my books of 2014. Her new novel, The River Capture, is about a man whose solitary existence is interrupted when a young woman knocks at his door, presenting him and his family with a dilemma. ‘This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art’ say the publishers promisingly.

Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel sounds as if it’s also about art, although possibly not its redemptive powers. The final work of a woman who committed suicide hangs in a Dublin gallery, a piece she’d intended as her shroud. A collector covets it so much he’s prepared to pay to have it stolen. Hegarty’s novel follows the thief he commissions, the curator who loves the piece and the man charged with recovering it. ‘The lives of these three damaged people, each evoked with a calm, moving sympathy reminiscent of Michael Cunningham or David Park, come together around the hauntingly strange Victorian painting’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely. I enjoyed Hegarty’s debut, Inch Levels, very much.

There’s something of a theme emerging here. In Jon Fosse’s The Other Name a widowed ageing painter is looking back on his life. Asle lives on the west coast of Norway and has just two friends – his neighbour and his gallerist who lives in Bjorgvin as does another Asle who is also an ageing painter leading a very different life. ‘Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not Cover imageanother?’ It’s the doppelganger idea that intrigues me with this one which is the first in a trilogy, apparently.

There’s geographical link rather than an artistic one to Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City which has been hailed a Norwegian masterpiece. It charts the changes in an Oslo neighbourhood through its inhabitants as the city emerges from wartime austerity. ‘The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women’ according to the publishers which sounds very inviting.

Years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I reviewed Susan Fortes’ Waiting for Robert Capa which introduced me to Gerda Taro, an unsung hero of war photography. Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica is also about Taro, telling her story through several characters attending her funeral held on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday and placing it firmly in the context of the time. ‘Gerda Taro is at the heart of this kaleidoscopic novel but another of its main characters is the era itself, the 1930s, with economic depression, the rise of Nazism, hostility towards refugees in France, the century’s ideological warfare, the cultural ferment, and the ascendency of photography as the age’s quintessential art form’ say the publishers. I’m very pleased to see such attention devoted to Taro who, I was annoyed to discover, is barely given a mention at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre which we visited in Budapest.

Cover imageI’m sure Zadie Smith would have shared that annoyance. I’m rounding this first October batch off with Grand Union, her first published collection. Smith’s stories take us from the last day of an Antiguan immigrant’s life in 1959 to a meditation on the nature of desire to a policeman in disgrace, apparently. ‘Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us’ say the publishers which sounds good to me.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Part two to follow soon.

That’s it from me until the end of the week. I’m off to see a friend who lives in Holmfirth in Yorkshire where I believe there’s a spanking new indie bookshop…