Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship

Cover imageRegular readers will know that I’m not one for words like ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’ – smacks too much of tweeness for me – but when I read the pitch for Isabel Vincent’s Dinner with Edward, they immediately popped into my head. Another one was ‘Christmas’, but that’s the old bookseller in me. Vincent’s book tells the story of her friendship with the nonagenarian Edward who cooks delectable dinners for her in his New York apartment.

Vincent has recently moved to the city, taking up a position on the New York Post after years as a foreign correspondent, bringing her husband and daughter with her. Living in Toronto, far from her father, Edward’s daughter has asked Vincent to look in on him, telling her of the promise his beloved wife Paula extracted from him to continue living after her death. Intrigued and tempted by Valerie’s descriptions of her father’s culinary prowess, Vincent calls in to be met by a dapper Edward who welcomes her into an apartment filled with delicious cooking aromas. So begins what is at first a weekly dinner date, replete with an immaculately prepared cocktail followed by several courses. Edward is both a wonderful host and an accomplished cook – inventive dishes prepared from carefully selected ingredients, wine perfectly matched, jazz playing quietly in the background. These two console each other – one who has lost the love of his life, the other whose marriage is crumbling – with food, appreciation and conversation, continuing to do so over several years until their meetings grow less frequent as Vincent finds herself in love and Edward’s health inevitably begins to fail.

You’ll have realised from the first paragraph that I found this book a delight. Hard not to use the word ‘heartwarming’, another word I tend to avoid, when describing the way in which Edward and Vincent rescue each other. Her account is arranged around the meals they share, beginning each chapter pleasingly with a menu. I’m sure Edward approved – the short interview at the back of the book tells us that he lived to see the hardback edition published in the States. Vincent unfolds his, and Paula’s, stories alongside her own as Edward introduces her to his repertoire of delectable lovingly perpared delicacies.

The secret is treating family like guests and guests like family

He’s very much the urbane New Yorker, seeing Vincent as something of a project. She begins to look at life a little differently, always leaving his apartment happy no matter how difficult things have become at home or how challenging at work. A lovely book, then. Almost as soon as I started it, I was struck by what a great movie it would make. I’d go and see it for sure.

Pushkin Press: London 2019 9781911590262 223 pages Hardback

The Outermost House by Henry Beston: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Cover imageHenry Beston’s The Outermost House is something of an American nature classic, an account of the year he spent living on a beach near Eastham, Massachusetts not far from the very tip of Cape Cod in the 1920s. This new edition comes with charming illustrations by Pete Smith who also designed its beautiful jacket.

An ambulance driver in World War One, Beston was a writer of fairy tales who decided to build himself a two-room summer house on the five acres of beach he bought in 1925, making sure to include a fireplace and an oil-fired stove. At the end of what was to be a two-week stay in September 1927, he decided to live in Fo’castle for a year, observing the rhythms of nature in this remote often harsh yet beautiful place. Apart from weekly tramps to the local stores for fresh supplies, occasionally helped by friends, and nightly calls by the coast guards as part of their patrols, Beston had little contact with other people but never felt lonely. From marvelling at the glorious night sky, with none of the light pollution that most of us hardly notice obscuring his view, to having his feet tickled by a shoal of fish on a nocturnal walk through the sea, to watching the comings and goings of migratory birds, Beston had much to occupy his year which ends fittingly with a night spent sleeping, albeit rather fitfully, under the stars

The Outermost House comes with an introduction by Philip Hoare which neatly sketches in details of Beston’s life, adding Hoare’s own description of the beach on which Fo’castle stood for a decade after Beston died until it was washed away by a storm in 1978. Beston’s reverence for nature and its importance to humanity is clear from the outset. Although there’s no mention of religion, there’s something of the spiritual about his attitude which resonates throughout the book.

Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man

Beston writes lyrically about the world around him, his awe at the land and seascape’s grandeur clear from the outset.

Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of the world  

The language and cadence of his writing transports you to Cape Cod with its crashing breakers, bird cries and shifting sand dunes. The book is studded with gorgeous word pictures, lovely descriptions which are a product of writerly skill and keen observation.

Silvery grey-green all summer long, in autumn it puts on gold and russet-golden colourings of singular delicacy and beauty

One of the most effective passages is Beston’s description of the sound of the sea, the constant yet changing soundtrack of his year

I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound  

I fell in love with this timeless, beautiful book, as you can probably tell. Impossible to read it, without thinking of climate change. There were man-made hazards in Beston’s day – he describes futile attempts to rescue birds from oil-spillages – but such incidents seem almost trivial given what we now know. Beston ends his book with the exhortation:

Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man  

Relevant then, and even more so now.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (transl. Faith Evans): Stories about women

A Nail, A Rose is introduced by Faith Evans who first translated Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s stories thirty years ago after meeting the author then in her early 80s. Evans puts the eight pieces comprising this collection in their historical, political and stylistic context, explaining that in the main they were written in the shadow of the Second World War. Bourdouxhe was a feminist writer whose work was much praised by Simone de Beauvoir yet it sank into obscurity until the recent reissue of both La Femme de Gilles and Marie. It’s these spare, striking novellas that made me want to read this collection which spans the years between 1944 and 1985.

Bourdouxhe’s stories are about women. In the eponymous piece, Irene walks home through the blacked-out night shocked by news that her love affair is over. Alarmed at the sound of footsteps behind her, she rounds on her assailant with surprising results. ‘Anna’ evocatively captures the loneliness of a humdrum life, as a woman speculates about her counterpart across the road whose chignon is secured with four nails. ‘Louise’ captures the longing to escape servitude even from the kindest of employers whose act of generosity wins her employee the attention of a man she thinks she loves but finds herself distracted by thoughts of friendship with Madame. Perhaps the most overtly political of the stories, ‘Leah’ sees a woman take decisive and dramatic action when the strike action she’s been covertly working towards is thwarted. In ‘René’, the most fantastical of the stories, a hairdresser’s encounter with an unusual customer evokes a reaction that will overshadow his life, leaving him forever unsatisfied. The final, autobiographical piece, ‘Sous le Pont Mirabeau’ follows a woman who has just given birth as she flees the war, encountering the kindness of strangers and longing for the normality of peace.

Bourdouxhe explores themes of resistance, sexuality, love and the ennui of everyday life in this striking collection. Some stories are more political than others but all are about the lives women lead, their thoughts, wishes and desires. Bourdouxhe accentuates her stories’ apparent simplicity, writing in clean, vivid prose:

Being with Nicolas was just like being with the two tables, the sofa and the radio (Anna)

Love, it’s all the same in the end – it never offers anything new (Anna)

She had a daughter; but though a child might give warmth, a presence and a reason for living, she couldn’t offer relief or help of any kind – she was more of a tender burden (Louise)

Summer was slowly dying. Tomorrow it would be autumn, a long succession of days, and after that a whole lifetime to come (Louise)

Evenings were still, and nights full, light and starry, the sky at peace: in this area, nights had become human again  

He shrank into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until distance overtook him and obliterated everything

These are powerful stories. Much is left unsaid, much for the reader to infer, yet Bourdouxhe’s careful economy of style conveys more in a single unadorned image than a paragraph of overworked flowery prose. What a treat for modern readers to have her work revived.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (transl. Sondra Silverston): Truth will out

Cover imageLook at that jacket. Isn’t it tempting? It was its premise that attracted me to Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel but I can’t ignore that cover. Not only is it eye-catching, it fits the book perfectly. Set towards the end of a Tel Aviv summer, Liar tells the story of a young girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation.

Seventeen-year-old Nofar is working the last few shifts of her summer job at an ice-cream parlour, preparing to face her final year in school. In walks Avishai Milner, sore from being turned down for yet another gig. He snarls an insult at her after she corrects his speech, pursuing her as she dashes out. When he touches her arm, she lets out a resounding scream which unleashes all her long pent-up frustration drawing the attention of passers-by who think the worst. Milner finds himself charged with attempted rape while Nofar is bathed in unaccustomed attention. Two other people know what really happened: one is a deaf-mute beggar the other is Lavi who’s watched it all from his bedroom window. Both Lavi and Nofar are suffering the appalling awkwardness of an adolescence unblessed with beauty. Unable to find a way to talk to Nofar with ease, Lavi decides to blackmail her. Over the course of two weeks, Nofar becomes the darling of the media, entangling herself further in deceit. Meanwhile Milner is in turmoil, the detective on the case thinks she hears a deaf-mute muttering, Nofar’s beautiful sister finds herself no longer the centre of attention and Lavi falls for Nofar. With the trial looming, Nofar realises she’s painted herself into a corner.

Gundar-Goshen smoothly shifts perspectives between characters telling her story from the point of view of Nofar and Lavi while weaving the backstories of more minor players through her narrative. No one, it seems, is entirely truthful: everyone is guilty of bending the truth one way or another. Gundar-Goshen’s characters are just like us: each has their own agenda; they mean well but truth is sometimes inconvenient. Her observation is merciless:

A deaf-mute beggar stood beside them, hand extended, and they pretended to be blind 

Her depiction of adolescent self-consciousness excruciatingly accurate

Nofar lived in the world as if she were an uninvited guest at a party

All of this is delivered with a smartly knowing wit leavened with compassion. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style – rather like that jacket.

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World edited by Henry Hitchings

Cover imageThis is the kind of book I’d have had stacked up at till points back in my bookselling days, aiming it squarely at the Christmas stockings of the bookish. It brought to mind Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops which I reviewed here a few years ago but Browse is much more of a book to dip into. Henry Hitchings’ introduction recalls some of his own bookshop experiences setting us up nicely for the essays to come, each very personal.

Htichings has rustled up contributors from around the world from Ali Smith to Dorthe Nors, Yiyun Li to Ala Al Aswany. There are fifteen essays in all, some entertaining some more sober, all interesting to the anoraks amongst us. I enjoyed each of them but should you need your appetite whetted here are some of my favourites beginning with Ali Smith who volunteers in her local Amnesty International bookshop where the bits and pieces of people’s lives found in the books they donate tell her as much about the locals as its eclectic stock.

Alaa Al Aswany recalls his signing at a Cairo bookshop on the eve of the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation and his realisation that his country’s plight was far worse than he’d thought.

Pankaj Mishra pays tribute to the erudite owner – infuriated both by well-heeled customers demanding discounts and ignorant sales reps – of Fact and Fiction, a small bookshop in South Delhi which he first visited in 1989, acknowledging Ajit’s formative influence on him.

Bukinist in Chernivtsi, Ukraine is one of the many second-hand bookshops in which Andrey Kurkov conducted his fruitless search for a The Ballads of Kukutis under the indulgent eye of its owner, used to an ‘eccentric urban bibliophile, always searching for something that doesn’t exist’.

Daniel Kehlmann takes us to Dussman, a bookshop I fell in love with on my last trip to Berlin, with his amusing conversation between two writers, one singing the praises of Dussman to the other as a model of the popular idea of Germany: neat, ordered and staffed by knowledgeable booksellers who restrain themselves from forcing their own taste on their customers.

Bosnian writer Saša Stanišić offers a witty piece about the anxiety of finding a dealer to feed his habit in his new home city only to be approached by one who introduces him to all manner of ‘substances’.

I’ll leave you with Ian Sansom’s memories of working at Foyles in the ’90s when Christina Foyle still ruled the roost and Danny La Rue lived above the shop. Sansom left after two years, although he jumped rather than waiting to be pushed as so many Foyles booksellers were in those days, just before their employment rights kicked in. I wonder if the new Foyles, now under Waterstones’ wing, will have strategic piles of Browse, artfully displayed next to tills.

States of Passion by Nihad Sirees (transl. Max Weiss): A tale of old Aleppo

Cover imageNihad Sirees is Syrian which is what attracted me to States of Passion with its promise of a glimpse into the world of old Aleppo. Poor Syria is less often in the headlines these days despite her destruction grinding on relentlessly. First published in 1998, Sirees’ novel spins a tale of love, passion and jealousy amongst the female musicians, dancers and singers of 1930s Aleppo, many of whom prefer to take their pleasure with each other.

Our self-deprecating narrator is an administrator for an agricultural bank who seeks shelter from a terrible storm while out assessing farmers for loans. He’s admitted grudgingly to an elegant mansion in the middle of nowhere by a manservant, then greeted effusively by Ismail’s master eager to tell our narrator his story. For five days and nights as the rain beats against the windows, Shaykh Nafeh tells his tale and our narrator becomes riveted, desperate to know how it ends but increasingly worried about the strange noises he hears in the night. Nafeh fell deeply in love with Widad, a young dancer in thrall to the powerful Khojah Bahira who conceived a passion for Widad just as she did for her mother. With the help of a sympathetic go-between, the young couple conducted a covert affair until Bahira found a way to break them apart. What happened to these young lovers, and why is Ismail so determined to prevent our narrator from hearing his master’s story?

Our narrator begins his story with a multitude of protestations about his lack of qualifications for the job, casting doubt on his reliability before going on to unfold this story of passion and jealousy expertly. There are stories within stories in Nafeh’s discursive narrative which begins when Syria had recently negotiated its independence from Paris in 1936. Set against a backdrop of wealthy Aleppo, there are vibrant depictions of all-female societies of musicians, dancers and singers who perform at weddings and for audiences of women who share the performers’ passion for each other, married or not. Syrees has a nice thread of suspense laced with humour running through his narrative as Ismail’s behaviour becomes increasingly baroque in his attempts to prevent our narrator hearing the end of Nafeh’s story. It’s a tale well spun, offering a glimpse of a culture about which I knew nothing and would like to know more. An introduction would have been the icing on the cake.

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to Norfolk for a spot of walking and probably some reading.

Layover by Lisa Zeidner: An episode of madness

Cover imageFirst published in 1999, Lisa Zeidner’s Layover may well be appearing on the big screen starring Penelope Cruz as Claire, its main protagonist, although when that might be seems a little hazy which means we’re spared one of those off-putting film tie-in jackets. It’s been reissued in the UK by the English language imprint of Pushkin Press who seem as keen on seeking out interesting lesser known novels as their translated fiction arm. Zeidner’s fiction explores mental illness and grief through a middle-aged woman who has lost her son and, briefly, her bearings.

Claire is a medical rep, travelling across the States and spending much of her time in hotel rooms. A few years ago she and her husband lost their young son Evan. Both of them has dealt, or failed to deal, with their grief in different ways but Claire is convinced she’s over the worst of it until the discovery of Ken’s affair sends her careening into an episode which sees her scamming hotels, avoiding her work appointments, sleeping with other men and succumbing to an insatiable need for sleep. Her Hitchcockian dreams are filled with images of Cary Grant in a white coat, her husband’s lover harangues her over the phone and her credit card’s been stopped. Claire knows this can’t go on but she’s not quite sure how to stop it.

Given that Zeidner’s novel was published nearly twenty years ago it feels surprisingly fresh. Claire narrates her own story in a sardonic voice which becomes increasingly brittle as her crisis bites. She’s an unreliable narrator who scatters small details of Evan’s death in amongst recollections and reflections about her marriage. She’s donned an armour against her grief, indulging in fantasies to avoid the issue with people she meets but now finds herself revealing the truth, much to their discomfiture. Her tone is sharp and funny, another disguise to cover her grief, but by the end of the novel some kind of acceptance has been reached. Witty and accomplished, Layover is an impressive piece of fiction. Zeidner’s skill at evoking both the claustrophobia of grief and the fences we build around it is admirable. Hard to see how  her novel will translate to screen – so much of it is spent in Claire’s head – but let’s hope it’s in the hands of an indie company rather than at risk from Hollywood blandification.

An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans (transl. David Colmer): The folly of war

Cover imageIf you want an introduction to literature from around the world, much of it hardly known to English speakers but often celebrated in its country of origin, you might like to keep an eye on Pushkin Press’s list. Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House is a fine example. Set towards the end of the Second World War, it sees an unnamed soldier stumble into an abandoned palatial house with farcical consequences.

Our Dutch narrator spends much of his time trying to decipher the orders fired at him by the man in charge of the shambling band of Red Army partisans to which he belongs. One summer’s day in a German spa town under bombardment, he sets of purposefully to fulfil yet another set of instructions he doesn’t understand, finding his way into a beautifully furnished house, abandoned yet with soup simmering in the kitchen. He convinces himself that he’s to check the house for booby traps but enjoys the luxury of a long bath, shaves to the sounds of bombs dropping and peruses the contents of the wardrobe as vehicles race past the house. Before long he’s settled in, passing himself off as the owner’s son when German officers politely requisition the house. Soon a routine is established and a cat adopted, then the house’s owner turns up.

Published in 1950 in his native Holland, Hermans’ book is a stark, funny and graphic exploration of the folly of war, a favourite theme of his so Cees Nooteboom’s enlightening Afterword tells us. In clipped, crisp prose, Hermans steers his readers through the confusion, chaos and constant threat that accompany battle into a brief haven of peace. The comic set-up, bordering on slapstick as our quick-thinking narrator adopts whatever persona gets him out of trouble, makes the ending of this brief novella all the more bleak. Bravo Pushkin Press for seeking out yet another international gem.

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland by Nicolai Houm (transl. Anna Paterson): Enduring love

Cover imageI seem to have read more novellas than usual this year. Not entirely a conscious decision – I love that feeling of sinking into a doorstopper, particularly in winter – but several of the shorter novels I’ve reviewed have packed much more of a punch than a luxuriously fat, piece of storytelling often does. Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a case in point: a slim yet powerful book which explores love, loss and the meaning of life all within fewer than 200 pages.

The eponymous Jane is zipped up in a fogbound bright orange tent, alone in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness and contemplating what has brought her to this state. Jane is Canadian, a successful novelist and teacher. Blocked in her writing, she’s immersed herself in tracing her Norwegian family history, contacting Lars Christian who has invited her to his home. On the flight from New York, she meets Ulf who suggests she accompany him on a field trip researching musk oxen. When things go horribly wrong at the Askeland-Nilsens’, Jane turns to Ulf, taking up his invitation despite neither of them having much in common with the other. Jane is given to apparently capricious rages, often drinking far too much and taking too many of the diazepam pills she uses to control her epilepsy. As her story unfolds, flashing back and forth, we understand that something dreadful has happened to Jane, untethering her and shattering the wholeness she thought she’d achieved.

Houm’s novel is expertly constructed. Written from Jane’s perspective, the slightly fragmented narrative circles the chance event which has blown apart her happy, successful life exposing its fragility. Small details are slipped in so that we piece together a picture of Jane’s troubled mental state and what has provoked it. This slow unfolding of her story makes the revelation – told in much longer passages than those which led up to it – all the more powerful. Beautifully translated by Anna Paterson, Houm’s writing is often striking: a therapist’s office smelt of tear-stained paper hankies; only torn-off rags of the fog hang on the slope, the rest is gone the morning after Ulf leaves Jane in her tent. The characterisation is sharp and perceptive; Houm’s description of the first proper row in a relationship painfully recognisable. There’s a little quiet humour sprinkled here and there but somehow this only emphasizes Jane’s plight. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing, this is the first book by Houm to be translated into English. Let’s hope there are plans for more.

Hotel Silence by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir (transl. Brian Fitzgibbon): Life lessons

Cover imageA few years ago, I read Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir’s slightly wacky, Murikamiesque Butterflies in November which I enjoyed very much. Her new novel, Hotel Silence, is a much quieter, more conventional piece of fiction which follows a heartbroken man who’s bought a one-way ticket from his Icelandic home to a country devastated by war and holding its breath that peace has been struck.

Jónas has been celibate for years although not by choice. The love of his life has ditched him, telling him that the daughter he thought was his is another man’s. He visits his demented mother, patiently listening to the recital of the story of his birth and her accounts of the many wars that have afflicted the world. He has a waterlily tattooed over his heart in honour of his daughter whose name it is. He listens to his neighbour list the many wrongs men have done women and his worries that his wife is unhappy. Never far from his mind are thoughts of killing himself but he can’t bear to inflict the discovery of his body on Waterlily. Instead, he decides to go abroad, booking a week at the Hotel Silence. He packs a few clothes, takes the diaries he kept as a young man and, as an afterthought, a few tools. He finds the hotel the worse for wear and sets about putting his room in order, attracting the attention of the young woman who runs the hotel and her son. Soon, Jónas finds others asking for his help and a week turns into three.

There’s a gentler, more melancholy humour running through this novel in contrast to the off the wall moments of Butterflies in November. Jónas is sympathetically portrayed, a man left somewhat puzzled by what has happened to his marriage, mining his diaries for clues about the young man he was when he first met his wife. His visit to the unnamed country taking its first steps towards recovery serves as an effective metaphor for his mental state as he pitches in to help survivors marked by horror and atrocity. The theme of relationships between man and women underpins this novella, deftly handled rather than laboured, but always there. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction managing to both entertain and deliver a message of hope through shared humanity and cooperation.