Tag Archives: Margot Bettauer Dembo

Letti Park by Judith Hermann (Transl. by Margot Bettauer Dembo): Quiet and thoughtful elegance

Cover imageThis is the third book I’ve read by Judith Hermann. Like Alice, the first, Letti Park is a collection of short stories comprising seventeen pieces, some just a few pages long. All three books are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but unlike the stories in Alice which are linked by the theme of loss and grief, these stories don’t lend themselves to easy analysis which is not to say they fall short in comparison, just that they’re harder to describe.

Hermann’s collection ranges from a group of people storing a delivery of coal, wondering about the precocious motherless four-year-old who arrives on his bicycle, to a daughter reluctantly visiting her father caught up in his own mental illness and unable to express an appreciation of her thoughtfulness, to a woman whose relationship with the therapist a friend has recommended long outlasts the friendship. In ‘Some Memories’ a lodger is disquieted by her elderly landlady’s tale of a long ago swimming accident on the eve of her holiday, worried about her landlady’s decline  A woman catches a frightening glimpse of another world when on a holiday her partner has advised against in ‘The East’. In ‘Mother’ a woman takes on the duties of a daughter when her best friend dies prematurely and becomes part of a distant family much to her children’s annoyance.

These are not stories in which a great deal happens. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quietly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. All this is expressed in elegantly understated prose: The champagne is ice-cold, and for Ada it turns the afternoon into something that hurts behind the ears, hurts in certain places in her body where, she suspects, happiness is hiding. This is a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s one that I’d been looking forward to very much and it didn’t disappoint.

Books to Look Out for in February 2018: Part Two

Cover imageThe second batch of February’s new titles is something of a mixed bag. I’ll begin with Tyler Keevil’s No Good Brother which sounds like a slice of adventure. Two brothers – one honest, the other not – set off on a journey to settle a debt with a notorious gang which will take them across land and sea dogged by customs officials, freak storms and a distinct sense of luck running out. ‘Quick-witted and beautifully observed, No Good Brother is an exquisite portrait of brotherly love and loyalty, examining the loss of innocence and the ties that bind us’ say the publishers. An uncharacteristic choice for me but the blurb’s put me in mind of Patrick deWitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers.

Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties sounds altogether different. Set in New York City from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s with AIDS on the horizon, the novel was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza and follows a group of gay and transgender young adults around the drag ball scene. Apparently, it was inspired by the documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ which I haven’t seen but the book sounds right up my alley.

I’m not so sure about Jessie Greengrass’ Sight but her short story collection, An Account of the Cover imageDecline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, was so highly rated that it seems worth investigating. It follows a woman through her preparations for motherhood as she remembers the death of her own mother and the time she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Significant medical discoveries are woven through her memories, apparently. ‘Wonderfully intelligent, brilliantly written and deeply moving, Sight is a novel about how we see others, and how we might know ourselves’ say the publishers.

This next one comes garlanded with praise from Margaret Atwood, no less. Katherena Vermette’s The Break tackles the tricky subject of female violence. A young mother living close by the eponymous strip of land on the edge of a Canadian town spots a girl in trouble and calls the police but when they turn up, they can find nothing. Their investigation reveals a string of wrenching stories about the people surrounding the girl. ‘Through the prism of one extended, intergenerational family, Vermette’s urgent story shines a light on the power, violence and love shared between women of all cultures, creeds and age’ say the publishers Cover imagewhich sounds very ambitious but Naomi over at Consumed by Ink, whose opinion I trust, was hugely impressed as you can see from this review.

I’m ending February’s new titles on a gentler note with an author whose previous work I’ve enjoyed very much. Judith Hermann’s Letti Park is a collection which explore the way in which random encounters with strangers can change our lives profoundly. Both Hermann’s novel Where Love Begins and Alice, her set of interlinked short stories, are fine examples of subtle, quietly effective writing so hopes are high.

That’s it for February. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first part of the preview it’s here. Paperbacks to follow soon…

Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): A comfortable life made uncomfortable

Cover imageIn the very early days of this blog I reviewed Judith Hermann’s beautifully put together set of interlinked short stories, Alice, under the banner ‘Small but Perfectly Formed’. The same heading could stand for her new novel, Where Love Begins, although its subject matter is quite different. Alice explored grief and how we endure it, both from the point of view of the bereft and those around them who perform small acts of kindness yet feel impotent in their efforts to soften this hardest of blows. This new, equally accomplished novel takes a more sinister route with its portrayal of Stella whose unremarkable life is turned upside down by a stalker.

Thirty-seven years old, Stella is married to Jason who she met on the plane she caught home from her best friend Clara’s wedding after catching the bridal bouquet. They live a prosaic enough life on a housing development in a small German town. Stella is a nurse, making home visits to the sick and elderly some of whom are grateful, others not so much, while Jason’s work often takes him away. Their five-year-old daughter, Ava, happily attends the local kindergarten. Stella misses Clara, looking forward to her letters and remembering their heady days sharing a flat together. She thinks about her marriage and how she met Jason who took her hand, calming her fears as the plane took off. One day the doorbell rings and Stella finds herself reluctant to answer it using the intercom instead. The man outside says he just wants to talk to her but Stella tells him to go away. So begins the almost daily visits from Mr Pfister who drops perplexing things into her mail box – a ball of twine, a home burnt CD, an empty yellow envelope.

In other hands this might have been just another somewhat clichéd thriller – a woman stalked by disturbed man with perhaps a horrible finale thrown in – but Hermann’s novel is much more complex than that. In her coolly elegant, quietly contemplative style she explores an ordinary life with all its discontents, small regrets and difficulties suddenly unsettled by the unwanted attentions of a stranger. What suspense there is low-key – disquieting rather than nail-biting and all the more effective for it. Hermann writes in that understated way that I find so impressive occasionally punctuated by vivid images: ‘A flock of sparrows flies up out of the trees in the garden across the way, as if hurled into the sky by a large hand’; in summer ‘the warm air enters the house like a guest’. The intimate almost tender exchanges between the carer and the cared for are delicately described, like an artist’s sketches, and Ava’s prattle is beautifully caught. All this is, of course, sensitively translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo whose work on Alice I so admired. Altogether a very fine piece of work. Time to explore Hermann’s backlist, I think.

Books to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageHope springs eternal as we edge towards the beginning of spring in the UK. With winter a bit of a non-event for half of the country, I’m wondering if we’ll notice its arrival at all. Plenty to keep you occupied indoors if it turns out to be another washout, though. It’s an all female line-up for March. Two of my choices are by writers whose books I’ve already read and enjoyed and three are new to me. I’ll begin with the one I’m most looking forward to, Elizabeth Hay’s His Whole Life. Late Nights on Air is one of those quietly beautiful books that I’d loved to have seen piled up on bookshop tables. Alone in the Classroom didn’t quite match it for me but I have hopes for this one which follows a young boy over the few years which will shape his adult life. It’s described by the publishers as ‘an unconventional coming of age story as only Elizabeth Hay could tell it. It draws readers in with its warmth, wisdom, its vivid sense of place, its searching honesty, and nuanced portrait of the lives of one family and those closest to it’ listing many of the qualities I admired in Late Nights on Air.

Way back in my early blogging days I posted a review of Judith Hermann’s Alice, a lovely, gentle novella, beautifully written. Her new one, Where Love Begins, sounds very different. Stella leads a prosaically happy life. Because her husband travels for work, she and her daughter are often alone in the house. One day, a stranger knocks on her door and asks to come in saying he only wants to talk to her. She sends him away but he persists day after day, undeterred when she tries to confront him. Described by the publishers as ‘a delicately wrought, deeply sinister novel’ it sounds riveting.Cover image

Of the three novels I’ve not yet read, Anna Raverat’s Lover sounds the most enticing to me. Kate’s marriage begins to unravel when she discovers her husband’s dalliance with another woman. Work offers no comfort as her boss becomes increasingly demanding. Amidst this turmoil, Kate’s priority is to protect her daughters but her life is in tatters. ‘Told with warmth and lightness, even as it also mines real depths of sorrow, Lover is a novel about the hand that life can deal you, and how to play it with grace. Beautifully observed, full of wisdom, poetry and humour, it asks what it means to be true in all things, and in so doing, how to live’ say the publishers, which makes it sound like a nice piece of intelligent, absorbing fiction.

I still haven’t got around to reading Deborah Levy’s Man Booker shortlisted Swimming Home, much rated for its writing, I gather. Her new novel, Hot Milk, ‘explores the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis, which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that its seems worth investigating.

Cover imageOttessa Moshfegh’s Eileen had already caught my eye then I read a review by Naomi over at Consumed by Ink – it was published in Canada a little while ago. The eponymous Eileen is a disturbed young woman caring for her alcoholic father and working as a secretary in a boys’ prison. She passes her dull days fantasising about escape and her nights and weekends shoplifting and stalking one of the prison guards. The arrival of an attractive counsellor sparks what Eileen thinks is a friendship but proves to be her undoing in what the publishers call a ‘Hitchcockian twist’. Naomi describes the novel as ‘delightfully morbid’, a book she couldn’t put down, which is more than enough to persuade me. Great jacket, too!

That’s it for March hardbacks. As ever if you want to know more, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis or, in the case of Eileen, Naomi’s review. Paperbacks shortly…

Alice by Judith Hermann (transl. Margot Bettauer Dembo): Small but perfectly formed

I hope that all went well for the many booksellers working their socks off yesterday selling Dan Brown’s new novel but I can’t help feeling sad that so much depends upon a handful of authors to keep the book trade afloat. So many excellent books sink without trace or leave little impression. I haven’t read any of the Dan Brown books and so can’t comment on them but I suspect that the slim beautifully written Alice by Judith Hermann published by the lovely Clerkenwell Press might be one Cover imageof those books that was barely noticed although it did get a glowing review in the Guardian from Philip Hensher when it was published in the UK. It’s a set of five interlinked short stories, each a meditation on loss and death.

In elegant understated prose Herman writes about the strange and dislocated world we enter when we lose someone close to us or watch a dear friend be drawn into that world. Everyday events become pointless or strange to us, we do what little we can to help those bereft perhaps buying flowers on the way to visit them, we find ourselves unable to voice the words when acquaintances ask after those we have lost and we see them everywhere. The latter is almost a cliché yet Hermann handles it beautifully, writing of Alice’s frustration at seeing Raymond, her dead husband, in the last carriage of a train as it disappears from view. Friends offer consolation – an old lover tenderly feeds her open sandwiches spread with his mother’s cherry jam – just as she has offered consolation to her friend Margaret when her husband died. This is a beautiful book and would not have been so for a British audience without the skill of Herman’s translator Margot Bettauer Dembo. Translators seem to me to be the unsung heroes of foreign fiction. And if it seems odd that I’m recommending short stories after Monday’s post I think the secret’s in the interlinking which makes Herman’s stories cohere. Alice reads much more like a novel than a collection for me.

What excellent news that Philip Hensher who sang Judith Hermann’s praises has won the Ondaatje Prize for Scenes from Early Life, and how lovely that we live in age when he can have a husband let alone write a prize winning novel about him. Given our current economic and meteorological gloom it’s easy to become disenchanted with the world but when an openly gay man can write a book about his husband it’s time to acknowledge that things really do get better.