Now here is a book cover to arrest the browser’s fickle gaze, with an elegant and beautiful balance of text, image and abstract colour. And it’s not a one-off, but part of a series design – Penguin European Writers – with titles by Cesare Pavese and Violette Leduc coming later this year. For the paper-fetishists among us, it’s a fine book-handling experience too, with flapped covers, slim format and printed on untreated card. And – I almost forgot – it’s one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year.
If I had to sum up Death in Spring (1986;... read more
Three years ago, Penguin hit paydirt with its Little Black Classics range: short, pocket-sized slices of work from the authors in its Classics imprint, at 80p a pop, to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books. It wasn’t a new idea: they did it before in 1995 (with the Penguin 60s, with both contemporary and classic authors), in 2005 (with the Pocket Penguin 70s – no, not those Pocket Penguins – containing old and new writing by Penguin authors) and in 2011, to celebrate 60 years of Penguin Modern Classics (with the Mini Modern Classics). And here is another set, 50... read more
Click on the link below to read my review in the Irish Times of Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, Feel Free. My review was edited for length, so I’ve included the original opening paragraph below:
A few years ago, Zadie Smith reviewed a collection of Geoff Dyer’s essays for Harper’s magazine, and praised his “tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition – the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Whether Smith was hoping that one day someone would say the same of her, who knows – but here it is. These are... read more
My days always followed the same route: downstream and back. I returned with photographs and small found objects such as feathers and stones, or the seed pods of withered flowers. Little by little the fluvial landscape took over my flat…The river itself would probably have been astonished.
What are we to make of the way that Esther Kinsky’s novel River begins? Immediately after the title page, the book reproduces the photograph shown above along with the dedication “For the blind child.” Then, after the Table of Contents, with the titles of the 37 chapters, there is an epigraph from the American... read more
All next week, University College London is holding its annual Festival of Culture. The list of programs looks great, especially this Sebald-related event:
A Refugee Child in WW2 London
Friday 8 June, 12.30-1.30pm
Institute of Archaeology G6 Lecture Theatre
This event marks the 80th anniversary of the first of the Kindertransports in 1938, in which thousands of refugee children came to Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe, many of them passing through London via Liverpool Street station. We’ll explore one of our century’s greatest novels, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), about a Jewish child who comes to London on a Kindertransport from Prague and recounts... read more
The Oder drew a border line up and down the country, writing a Here and a There in the sandy earth. Under it, however, countless watery question marks and intertwining letters tugged in both directions, east and west, a water-script of histories granted continuity through the river, under it, beyond it, its tributaries and ramifications annotating the landscape, reversing its sides with befuddling mirror images of the sky and its blues of Here and There.
Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.
The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River is an unnamed woman who... read more
That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.
In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low. At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past.... read more
Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw
Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which... read more
The saints were uneducated. Why, then, do they write so well? Is it only inspiration? They have style whenever they describe God. It's easy to write from divine whispers, with one's ear glued to his mouth. Their works have a superhuman simplicity. But they cannot be called writers, since they do not describe reality. The world won't accept them because it does not see itself in their work. EM Cioran, Tears and SaintsA surprising conclusion: realism, the new narcissism.
It might explain why I prefer to read non-writers. But what do they write about if God no... read more
This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator's imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn't sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain... read more
Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by... read more
Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.
Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less... read more
"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air." Peter Handke"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air." Gabriel Josipovici I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling... read more
A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey
Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in... read more
I've been watching a lot of book videos on YouTube recently, with a growing desire to contribute to the conversation. At the same time I've wondered if making videos might be an answer to those times when writing a longish blog review is beyond my powers. Somehow a couple of thousand words seems like a lot more effort than talking to myself for 10 minutes. Anyway, I decided to give it a go and do a 'tag' video by way of introduction, without any special equipment or editing or, well, forethought really. It's taken me almost a week to... read more
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate, 14th June 2016
E-book, 736 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.
Annie Proulx's new novel is about devastation, both cultural and environmental. Over the course of 700 intensively researched pages and 300 years it charts the story of the colonization of North America, and the landscapes and ways of life it destroyed,... read more
Forgive me lovely people for I have slumped, both in my reading and in my blogging.
It's been over a month since my last confession and I've had to drag myself back to the keyboard like a stroppy teenager.
After a phenomenally good January to May of books, June was a bit of a wasteland. Thankfully July is looking up, but after an absence it's always difficult for me to get back on the horse and write again. The longer the gap the more books there are to be read for review, the more reviews there are to write, the easier it... read more
The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
Bloomsbury, 2 June 2016
E-book, 355 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
At nineteen Katherine North is the oldest Phenomenaut at Shencorp, the world's leading Consciousness Projection provider. Recruited at the tender age of twelve she has spent much of the last seven years hooked up to life support in a lab while her mind inhabits the bodies of other animals. In that time she has contributed enormously to scientific research on endangered species - her specialism - bringing back data and the lived experience of being an animal into the human... read more
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
Fourth Estate, 2nd June 2016
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
The 2nd of June seems to be this year's fashionable publication date for all the books designed to appeal to me. I count four ARCs on my TBR coming out that day and all of them sound ruddy amazing. I've been psyching myself up for a personal mini-challenge of reading them in quick and glorious succession, so that I can write about them in the run up to the Big Day. First up is a debut by Eleanor Wasserberg, a recent graduate from... read more
Journeyman by Marc Bojanowski
Granta, 5 May 2016
*My copy provided by the publisher for review.
Just a year ago the look, feel and blurb for this book would have sent me running for Bailey's Prize hill and the safety of my comfort zone post-haste. A carpenter has a dark night of the quietly masculine soul in mid-2000s California against the back drop of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Take note of how I'm trying to extend my reading repetoire by trusting to the judgement of Granta and ploughing on in. As brave ventures go, this one turned out surprisingly... read more
I couldn't let this celebration day of Adlestrop and Edward Thomas end without revisiting this exquisite illustration and calligraphy that one of our number, Fran, shared with the Team Edward Thomas project.
Fran's father, Harold Page, who had celebrated his ninetieth birthday in 2011 was a retired British Rail architect. Into his eighties Harold took up calligraphy and book binding as a hobby and he had completed a beautifully illustrated and hand bound copy of Edward Thomas's poem Adlestrop. Harold died in 2013 but left a wonderful legacy with his artwork so it is a joy and a privilege to share it again... read more
"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20am and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud... then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms. Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam." (Edward Thomas)
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left... read more
Every book I pick up at the moment, in the light of my Odyssey reading, seems to be about a journey of one sort or another and I have been happily trundling along with two very different books, Swimming With Seals by Victoria Whitworth and In a Land of Plenty by Tim Pears.
Swimming With Seals because a few friends seem to be heading to Orkney. It has been a joy to share their journeys on Facebook, beautiful pictures of so many places I love.
Thank you to the friend who headed to Waulkmill Bay and sent me pictures of the place where... read more
The Summer Solstice.
Officially the first day of Summer, the Longest Day, when those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will have seventeen hours of daylight to enjoy. This year I expect we have had splendid dawns though I must confess I don't see many of those, but they have heralded long days of azure skies ending in heart-stopping sunsets which always see me imagining myself handing over the sun-baton to Offspringette in New Zealand. On one day a spectacular sun halo which the Kayaker took full photographic advantage of...
But what could I put on here for today..
What would be special...
I... read more
A great big thank you to the person who mentioned this poem in comments, Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) It was new to me (and I now realise he also wrote Waiting for the Barbarians) but fits this reading moment perfectly, so I have copied it into my reading journal in the midst of all my Odyssey notes. It seems like a mantra for life too... about the journey being as important as the destination, and that perhaps in yearning too much for something we miss the scenery along the way. I would be interested to know what you think.
I have... read more
Magnus stayed in long enough to check out the basket of names...
and congratulations to the winners of a copy of either The Song of Achilles or Circe by Madeline Miller. You should all have received an email with the good news...
... read more