Tag Archives: Jill Alexander Essbaum

Travels From My Sofa: Walking in the Mountains of Italy, Switzerland and Austria,

Walking is the thing that’s helped keep me sane – so far – throughout the pandemic. That and blogging with its virtual community, still there when I can’t see my other friends. I’ve resisted The Dolomites - near selvausing the term ‘lockdown’ because, for me, that would have meant the end of the permitted daily exercise outside the house and I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that. Mountain walking wasn’t something I did until my late twenties, although I did start in a big way when H and I spent a few months travelling which included trekking in Nepal. There are three countries much closer to home of which I have fond hiking memories to revisit. If you fancy a bit of virtual exercise with the odd city break plus links to a few reviews thrown in, you’re welcome to join me. We’re off to Italy first.

It was on our way to the Dolomites that the idea of railway holidays took root having flown to Munich where we spent a very pleasant evening before catching the train into Italy. The destinations listed on the Munich station departure board held out the tantalising prospect of a bit of real travel. We’d booked two hotels for this trip, the first of which was in the tiny village of Badia and very smart in a laid-back kind of way it was too. TheVia Garibaldi (Genoa) second was in Selva, still a village but it felt almost like a city after a week in Badia. The walking was all we’d hoped for although there were a few too many cyclists intent on keeping their stats up rather than avoiding us on the paths around Badia. The wildflowers were gorgeous as was the pudding buffet on offer in our second hotel, recced every night by a few anxious diners even before they tucked into their starters.

Our most recent visit to Italy had nothing to do with walking but I loved the city of Genoa with its splendid mansions and mosaic lined colonnades so much I can’t not give it a mention. Not nearly so crowded as the likes of Florence, where I spent a wet Cover imageNovember week years ago, or Venice, which I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, and it offered a glimpse of real Italian life.

Italian travels from my sofa: The Eight Mountains, Ties, Three Light-Years, My Mother is a River

We could go either way over the border to Switzerland or Austria but let’s take the Swiss route as H and I did a couple of years back, revisiting the sweet little town of Adelboden. Many of the walks were familiar from a previous holiday but just as gorgeous with spring rather than summer wildflowers to enjoy plus a bit of marmot-spotting. This time we managed to fit in a visit to the immaculately kept church opposite the delicatessen whose sculpted cow View from Adelboden (Switzerland)moos now and again advertising the cheese counter inside. With its richly coloured stained-glass windows and stars painted on its wooden beamed ceiling the church is a little gem. Its central window was designed by Augusto Giacometti, a relative of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. This was the church where we’d seen a freshly married couple picked up and seated on top of some hay bales before being carried off on a very small tractor last time we were there.

Swiss travels from my sofa: Housefrau, Sweet Days of Discipline, Year of the Drought

Cover image for A Whole Life by Robert SeethalerOff to Austria for two more weeks high in the mountains above Zell am See where more marmots were spotted. We’d been hoping for another Adelboden but Zell has suffered from a little too much tourism losing some of its charm on the way. Oddly, it’s become a destination for young Saudis, some in traditional dress looking a little out of place against an alpine backdrop. The walking was so enjoyable we never got around to exploring nearby Salzburg. Apart from a brief stop in Innsbruck while hitching around Europe, back in the day, when we turned up to find everything closed on a Saturday afternoon, my other two visits to Austria have both  been to Vienna, once on a winter break when I was struck by how conservative the city felt and the second in the summer at the end of our first Central European railway jaunt when it seemed entirely different. What a difference a season makes.

Austrian travels from my sofa: The Tobacconist, A Whole Life, The Empress and the Cake, Me and Kaminski

I hope that’s stretched your virtual legs a bit. Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2016

Cover imageI like to start these previews off with a book I can heartily recommend and I’m delighted to say that’s easy this April as two of my 2015 favourites hit the shops in paperback. Hard to choose which I enjoyed most so I’m starting with one and ending with the other. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s wonderful Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through twentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s protagonist in Hausfrau is the antithesis of Rose, living a life in the Zurich suburbs so attenuated she’s almost faded into its background. Anna is an American who moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant than a bystander. Soon, Anna begins an affair and over the course of three months, finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core. Essbaum’s language is striking and Anna’s story well told. Well worth a read.

The next three are new to me, although I’ve had my eye on Owen Sheer’s I Saw a Man for some time. It’s about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer with a reputation for lyrical prose and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

I spend quite lot of time banging on about lousy jackets but in this particular case, it’s the jacket that’s sold the book to me so I can only hope the contents live up to it. Nell Leyshon’s Memoirs of a Dipper is about Gary, a seasoned thief, trained by his father on the job when he was just a child. He’s already done a stint inside, coming out of prison a career criminal. Bright, opportunistic, he knows all the moves ‘but all that changes when he falls for Mandy…’ is the nice little teaser from the publisher. A little outside my usual purview but I do like that cover

The same could be said of Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress which is set in 1255 but Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of it as ‘so beautiful, so rich, so strange’ has piqued my interest. Sarah is seventeen when she decides to be an anchoress, shutting herself away in a tiny cell beside the village church. She’s turned her back on the world and devoted herself to prayer in an attempt to escape her grief for her sister and her family’s determination that she should marry. Things, of course, are never so simple. ‘Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the very human need for connection and touch. With a poetic intelligence, Cadwallader explores the relationship between the mind, body and spirit in Medieval England in a story that will hold the reader in a spell until the very last page’ say the publishers.

Cover imageI’m rounding things off with my other 2015 favourite, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth which was commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

That’s it for April paperbacks. A click on anything I haven’t already reviewed will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with new titles for the month they’re here and here.

Hausfau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Emma Bovary, a twenty-first century reprise

Cover imageJill Alexander Essbaum’s debut is one of those books about which there’s been a good deal of eager anticipation in my neck of the Twitter woods. That way disappointment often lies but this twenty-first century take on Emma Bovary turns out to live up to all that’s been tweeted. Although Hausfrau is Essbaum’s first novel she’s an award-winning poet with a poet’s facility for language which makes this book a treat for those who appreciate a well-turned phrase as well as an absorbing piece of literature.

Thirty-seven-year-old Anna Benz lives in a well-heeled suburb of Zurich with her husband, Bruno, their two sons and a daughter. Anna is an American. She moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with Victor, their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant rather than a bystander. They’re a disparate bunch, from the irrepressible Mary – a Canadian whose hockey-playing husband has been head-hunted by a premier team – to Nancy, single, childless and happily independent. Archie is the one who captures Anna’s attention and almost immediately they begin an affair. This is what Anna does to feel alive – sex with men who are almost strangers, about whom she knows and cares next to nothing but who offer a few hours of escape from herself. Only one has meant something to her, and it’s with him that she thinks herself still in love. Over the course of three months, Anna finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core.

Anna leads a life so attenuated she has faded almost entirely into its background. She has just one self-absorbed friend, rarely exchanges even a greeting with other mothers at the school gate, has little connection other than politeness with her mother-in-law and feels that she and Bruno share only ‘a version of love’, a phrase which recurs throughout the novel. She doesn’t even have her own bank account. All these details are slowly revealed though vignettes from Anna’s psychiatric sessions, her various affairs, her class and her family life, with flashes of dreams and remembered moments from her affair with Stephen. Essbaum uses language strikingly: ‘Their husbands wore the jewellery of their beauty like elegant wristwatches’ describes bankers and their trophy wives to a T. Comparisons with Emma Bovary are inevitable, perhaps even expected: the stultifying social niceties of bourgeois Switzerland stand in nicely for nineteenth-century provincial France. Almost pitch-perfect then for me but one quibble: Doktor Messerli’s comments worked beautifully as a device for illuminating Anna’s personality but Jungian analysis seems an arduous task for one so passive. That said, this is an extraordinarily impressive debut. Had I read it before posting my Baileys Prize wish list I certainly would have included it.

Books to Look Out for In March 2015

The Faithful CoupleSuch are the many temptations in March’s publishing schedules that this is going to be a long post, I’m afraid. I’ll begin with A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple as it’s the one I’m looking forward to most. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s published back in 2010. This one sounds entirely different. It begins in 1993 with two British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California and go on a camping trip together which will throw a shadow over both of them. The novel follows them over the next two decades reflecting and refracting London through their lives and friendship until the truth of that trip emerges. I always find this kind of structure particularly attractive and I enjoyed Snowdrops very much.

Patrick Gale needs no introduction after the rip-roaring success of the Richard and Judy (remember all that?) bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. A Place Called Winter is based on his own family history, telling the story of Henry Cane, forced by scandal to emigrate to the Canadian prairies where he sets up as a farmer in the eponymous settlement. According to the publisher it’s ‘an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love’. A grand claim but I’ve yet to read a Gale that I didn’t enjoy.

I have to say that the publisher’s blurb for Polly Samson’s The Kindness is a tad overblown but it boils down to this – Julian falls passionately in love with Julia, married and eight years his senior. Against all advice they throw up everything to be together enjoying their happiness until their daughter Mira becomes seriously ill forcing Julia to reveal a terrible secret. This may not sound too inspiring but the prose is ‘lyrical’, apparently, and the plotting ‘masterful – I enjoyed her previous books, Out of the Picture and Perfect Lives, very much

Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore is more a set of interconnecting stories than a novel. It spans a The Shorecentury and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia. I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid – I prefer something to get my teeth into – but when they’re linked in this way they can work extraordinarily well, as the aforementioned Perfect Lives did for me, and I like the sound of the setting very much. Lots of comparisons in the blurb, including one to Cloud Atlas, but I’m not letting that put me off.

I have to confess I don’t remember Judith Claire Mitchell’s The Last Days of Winter which was published ten years ago but A Reunion of Ghosts sounds right up my street. Three sisters living together in a New York apartment at the end of the last century have decided to kill themselves. It’s something of a family tradition, so it seems, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the poison gas used in both world wars. A little on the dark side, admittedly, but it sounds fascinating.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut Hausfrau takes us to a wealthy Zurich suburb where American ex-pat Anna Benz lives with her husband and three young children. Disconnected and isolated, Anna plunges into a series of passionate affairs which will eventually end in tragedy as her life unravels. Billed as a ‘literary page-turner’ it sounds as if it has more than a touch of the Emma Bovarys but nevertheless has the makings of an absorbing read

Cover imageI spotted the jacket of Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House on Twitter and couldn’t resist it. Reading the blurb it seemed even better: One hot July day three elderly people are found dead in a rundown house in Primrose Hill. Spotting the story in the paper Marie Gillies feels she is somehow to blame. McGrann’s novel pieces together what has happened, entering the secret world of the ladies of the house. It comes from the editor who brought us two of my books of 2014: The Miniaturist and Shotgun Lovesongs. Enough said, for me, anyway.

And finally, Anna Gavalda’s Billie has already been a huge seller in France. It’s the story of two unlikely friends: Franck, a bright, sensitive young boy with a bigoted father and a depressed mother, and Bille, desperate to escape her abusive family. Billie tells Franck her story when they find themselves trapped in a mountain gorge on holiday. I loved Gavalda’s Consolation and her Hunting and Gathering – she has a light touch with storytelling which I’m hoping to see more of in Billie.

Phew! That’s it for March, and if you’ve yet to catch up with February here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks.