Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The little red chairs - Edna O'Brien

"You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it." Edna O'Brien ~ The little red chairs

I finished The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien yesterday and what a novel 🌠I'm word-less 💜 More than the story, and the way it was told, it is O'Brien's way of looking at the world & at the people in it, that I love. With O'Brien, I've found a writer who is tuned to the same rhythm I feel around me, she captures the same colours & sounds I see and hear. And she makes me understand them better, and see them clearer. Now that's quite rare isn't it 💙 and it should be.

The story is set in a remote Irish village in which, one day, Dr Vlad arrives and settles. Vague about his past, but presenting himself as a healer, Vlad slowly becomes a member of this closely-knit community. Fidelma, a married woman who has not been able to have children with her husband & who badly wants a child, approaches Vlad asking him to father her a child. Vlad agrees & warns her this is not an affair. Once she falls pregnant, they stop seeing each other but it is too late. Everyone knows. And it is the moment when Vlad gets arrested and his true identity is revealed. He was the Butcher of Bosnia, who was behind the Sarajevo siege and massacre. Fidelma is now in danger. After the horrendous attack she suffers, she flees to England and tries to understand the part she has played in the life of this war criminal, and he in hers. An exploration of the notion of 'sin', and of its weight.

'The little red chairs' is a reference to the 11,541 red chairs lined & left empty in Sarajevo in remembrance of the victims of the 44-month siege of the city, 643 of them were for children. Rest in peace.

The Mischief - Assia Djebar's first novel

'La Soif' (The thirst) is Assia Djebar's first novel. It was published in 1957 by Julliard editions in Paris, France. By all accounts, it was a difficult novel to own up to for Djebar immediately after its publication. 'La Soif' not only appeared during Algeria's war of independence, while the fighting against France was raging in Algeria, but it was set very far away from war or any matters relating to colonisation.

Narrated by a young priviledged Algerian woman during her summer holiday, La Soif is the story of a complex foursome, two couples, who spend the summer together by the sea. As tensions rapidly build between the two women and men, the foursome disolves into a threesome. This mischievous slip will lead to tragic events that will affect the life of each character, for ever.

'La Soif' is an intimate and sensual novel. It is built looking inward, by a woman who looks at her body, and tries to understand its needs, her tendency for what she feels is petty cruelty, and the weight of her actions.

Djebar's first novel did not go unnoticed in France once released, and with it, Djebar emerged as a powerful voice to be reckoned with in literature.
'La Soif' appeared in English one year after its publication, in 1958, translated by Frances Frenaye as 'The Mischief' and published by Elek Books (Great James Street London). This translation seems to be one of the very first - if not THE first - novel by an Algerian writer translated into English.

Both the original work, La Soif, and the translation The Mischief are terribly hard to get a hold of as both seem out of print.

To celebrate 8 March - for what it's worth - here is the full English version 'The Mischief' in PDF -> THE MISCHIEF BY ASSIA DJEBAR

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Escape by Ahmed Akkache - the first Algerian Prison Break

'The Escape' (L'évasion) by Ahmed Akkache is the 'Prison Break' epitome of Algerian literature. Set in the 50s, Akkache tells the story of the attempted escape of five Algerian men imprisoned in the political wing of a French prison, in the city of Angers.

Ahmed Akkache was a communist militant and an important figure during the Algerian war of independence, as well as post-war. During his militancy, he was arrested by the French authorities. He was sent to France and jailed there - a customary tactic of the French authorities to break the link between freedom fighters and their groups, and which was implemented before and throughout the war of independence.

In these French prisons, Algerian militants were grouped in the same jail-wings to contain them, and to contain the news and facts of war that these men would otherwise necessarily reveal to French men if they were jailed together.
While in jail in Angers, Akkache managed to escape from the prison's hospital aided by a group of French communists. It is this real escape that Akkache has used to build the scenario of a daring and courageous 'prison break' in L'évasion

This novel was published in 1973 by SNED, and is prefaced by Yacine Kateb. The pair had known each other for 20 years and were great friends. They had met and worked together at the newspaper Alger Républicain.

Fancy reading L'évasion? Click here to download the full novel:

Ahmed Akkache, born in 1926, died aged 84 in 2010. Rest in peace. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

"The Woman in Black" by Susan Hill was a fantastic read, so fluid I read it all in practically one sitting. As deliciously eerie as an Edgar Allan Poe, gothic and dark, told in a language that brilliantly captures the tone of a late 19th novel (although written in 1983!)

The story is told by Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor sent by his firm to the funeral of their client Mrs Drablow, and instructed to go through all her documents to bring back those related to her estate. Mrs Drablow was a widow with no children who lived in a large house on the marshes outside the village. It is in the house that brave Kipps is going to spend the two nights that will change his life forever.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

"Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis is a novel described as a satire of academic life and of academics, and that's very much the axis on which the narrative revolves. Beyond that though, it is as much the story of a young man who tries to fit in and to make do with the only opportunities he feels are before him, both in his private life and in his working life and slowly, despite his efforts, finds himself suffocated by conformity and let's his (good humoured) nature take over. 

The story is set in the head of the main character, Jim, who describes everything he sees and hears with a joke. Initially, this is a bit tiresome for the reader as you might imagine. It took me a good one hundred pages to get used to this style and to fully see that beyond the jokes lay intelligent and deeply honest remarks about society's expectations, and about a rigid class system now beginning to break open within academia in 1950s.

Once I got used to the flow and figured out where all his jokes where heading to, I really enjoyed the story. One element did stick out throughout the novel though: every woman is portrayed as neurotic, irrational, or eccentric. The only redeeming quality in the woman Jim ends up falling for is her youthful beauty and self-righteousness (and she's loaded). Perhaps it was a comment on the author's part of how men were programmed to see women, or perhaps that is just how the author wanted them. All the same, as a woman I found it was an issue for me.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Record of a night to brief by Hiromi Kawakami

"I could see the moon, high up in the sky, and I could feel the breeze gently caressing my skin, but nothing of what I was expecting might happen was happening."

That's exactly how I feel about "Record of a night to brief" by Hiromi Kawakami, and not in a good way.

This was one of the most frustrating set of short stories I've read in a while. Why? Because the story line was as nonsensical as the writing was beautiful.

Kawakami uses magic realism, and folktales to slowly open a nightmarish-dream world but stops there. And she doesn't 'take' you there, she dumps you there, hence the frustration.

In the first story "Record of a night too brief", there was no narrative. It was a series of sentences stating events totally unrelated and left unexplained. A narrator moves from one vision to another in an 'Alice in Wonderland' style. The series of visions never ends, it contradicts itself endlessly too. There was no end, no beginning, no middle even. .

The second short, "Missing" was lovely however. A family is about to marry their son but in their family people can become invisible and even disappear from everyone's memory if gone too long. His sister tries her hardest to not forget him and observes the event that follow his 'disappearance'.

The third and last short "A snake stepped on" started great but then became as nonsensical as the first. A woman steps on a snake by accident and this means that a snake will come and inhabit her home until she agrees to become a snake too. A seduction and struggle follow between these two, and the woman realises she's not the only one struggling, everyone around her has had a run-into snakes taking human forms too. As the story progresses, it looses its narrative grip and again goes into what I can only describe as a series of hermetic and cryptic sentences.

Despite this strange read, I'll still try to read Kawakami's novels though, but she's just not my thing in short story form.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

My previous read - the japanese crime fiction "Out" - was pulp fiction (not the movie) at its tastiest. Totally improbable odds, intense suspense, combined with blood thirsty violence and revenge. I loved it. But Keigo Higashino's world of crime is quite different. The Devotion of Suspect X is a classic whodunnit with a twist. Thoroughly logical with a superbly crafted focus on clues - real and fake - with old school justice at its core. It was like a fencing match: two awesome minds face each other at opposite ends of a murder. One has created a puzzle, the other will attempt to unscramble it. Higashino had me guessing until the last page, and managed to keep up the suspense on a high note throughout. Delicious read!

The story: Ishigami is one of the cleverest mathematician of his generation. He has given up on academia to dedicate himself to his life long project: solving one of the most famous problems in mathematics without a computer. Ishigami happens to be Yasuko's next door neighbour. Yasuko is kind, beautiful, and has a charged past. Her ex-husband, a bully and a thief who has horrible designs on her daughter, has been stalking her for years. She thought she finally escaped him but she was wrong.... Ishigami will be here to help her when tragedy strikes, but he could not have foreseen that Yukawa, his former university pal and Ishigami's equal in mathematics, would turn out to be Detective Kusanagi's assistant. And the duel begins!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

"Out" by Natsuo Kirino

I finished "Out" by Natsuo Kirino and it was 😍😱😨😵🌋😘💜 ! What a novel. To prepare for reading it, I'd suggest you first (re)watch Kill Bill, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown & Matador!

Out is a must read for anyone interested in Japanese crime fiction. It's a gore, bloody, violent, insightful, philosophical, dark story that reflects on fate, and whether we can ever escape the consequences of the choices we make.

The story: four women work night shifts at a food factory. They're of different ages, of different backgrounds but all struggle in their family lives and men are mostly at the root of their problems. When young and pretty Yayoi, mother of two young boys, hears from her husband that he's gambled all their savings and spends all his wage on Anna, a high class prostitute, she is more than heart broken. She is enraged. When her husband beats her for good measure, she kills him then calls Masako, one of the girls at work to get some help. Masako takes the body to her house, calls her colleague Yoshie and they cut him into small pieces. Now what should they do with the body parts? When Kuniko, their fourth colleague unexpectedly turns up at Masako's house, they decide to divide the bags between themselves and throw them in various places around the city, hoping he'll never be found and if they are, that the body will never be identified. But Kuniko is sloppy and her lots of bags are found. The body parts are quickly identified as Kenji's, Yayoi's husband. Anna's protector, Satake, is quickly suspected of the murder because he is known to have committed a horrendous crime 17 years ago. Held in jail until released for lack of proof, he looses his business and all the life he's built for the last 10 years. Once out, Satake is furious, and he's decided to find and hunt Kenji's real murderer. And the chase begins!

Out was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

"Asleep" by Banana Yoshimoto (translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich)

Asleep is a collection of three stories: Night and Night's Travellers, Love Songs, Asleep. 
All three deal with bereavement and the feelings of drifting in and out of consciousness it brings, finding oneself in a state of not quite being awake. 

All characters have lost a person very dear to them. They try to help each other to bear the pain in superbly gentle, silent & tender ways. Each character is in a state of trance or haze and their dreams are a means through which their consciousness tries to reach out beyond the pain, and to return to a sense of normality, wounded but at peace and in acceptance of the blows of fate.

Night and Night's travellers, Shibami has lost a brother, Mari has lost the love of her life. It is through a dream that Mari will sense a truth and perhaps a way beyond bereavement.

Love Songs, Fumi's friend comes to her in a dream, it will offer her a way toward peace.

Asleep, the narrator slowly falls into a state of unconsciousness after the death of her best friend. A warning & help come to her in a dream. Will she listen or is it too late?

As in Kitchen, Yoshimoto explores the aftermath of death, loss and the state of bereavement. Her exploration of the function of dreams, of being stuck in between​ two worlds are the themes I love so much in Haruki Murakami. .

Yoshimoto is a wonderful author. I wish I could read her in the original Japanese. Asleep is a 4/5 for me 😇

Saturday, 14 January 2017

England Made Me by Graham Greene

I've just finished England Made Me by Graham Greene and am so shaken by it.

It was a strange read, and reminded me of The Evenings by Gerard Reve in that it built a formidable tension in a seemingly static setting.

England made me is introspective, slow in action although I now know it was a false sense of slowness, Greene had caught me so intensely into the internal dialogues & tragedies of each character that I failed to hear the ticking of fate's clock. So when the clock did strike, I was caught totally unawares, and as in life, with hindsight I can see that Greene had given all the clues. Not one of this novel's character was flat or neglected, each was beautifully studied, particularly the relationship that binds twins, whether they like it or not. .

If you prefer action packed and fast-paced stories you might feel a little impatient with this story but if you can handle slow for 200 pages, then a deeply affecting novel awaits.

Warning: if like me the weather in novels really affects you, be warned that this story in set in Sweden under the rain, so prepare a hot water bottle & a blanket.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon

Thanks to a strike today, I read Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time in one day, in strange & successive sittings (at home waiting for the tube, at the tube station, in the interrupted tube, in the bus, in the second bus because the first bus cancelled stations due to the strike, in the third bus and finally in front of a strong coffee!)

And what a fresh, surprising & serious read it was.

The story is told by 15 year-old Christopher who has Asperger's syndrome. After Christopher finds Wellington the dog murdered, he decides to find the killer. He writes a book of his investigation keeping a record of clues & events to solve the case as if it were a mathematical formulae. Christopher is so logical and truthful that he will find coping with the secrets & lies he will unearth a thorough challenge. .

This novel is a tribute to those who think differently but who are not different than anyone else.

I did find the maths style a little trying towards the end. But that maybe because I'm rubbish at maths & was getting frustrated with the commute situation. A wonderful, inspiring read.