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
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560
Summer means beaches, beer, flirtations, rowdiness. For people in northern climates, the brevity of summer puts people who are in a rush to celebrate on a collision course with nature—with sand, water, heat, bugs, snakes, sudden storms. Written five years earlier than River (which I wrote about in two recent posts), Esther Kinsky’s novel Summer Resort is a condensed story of one very hot summer at an üdülő, or a resort, on an unnamed river in Hungary. The book, which has no real main character, is reminiscent of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, providing... 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
There was a small story behind this...
It was several months ago that the quilt group announced this year's Summer Challenge, to Make a Postcard, and I knew instantly where I was going to look for my fabrics and what I wanted to do...
When I take the lid off the Liberty box (that Bookhound found in a charity shop), it's all a bit of a muddle and a mess. No tidily folded pieces in here, I dive in and out on a whim and always find the right thing because that's Tana Lawn for you...
And I knew exactly what I wanted... read more
It is a long time since I fell in love with English paper piecing, indeed for a long time I thought it was the only form of patchwork in existence. Hand stitch the fabrics over papers, stitch the papers together, five years later a cot quilt still isn't ready for the baby who is now about to start school and dare I say, this one still isn't finished for the baby who is now thirty-five....
But I have at least finished this tiny postcard-sized piece (each hexagon not much bigger than a 5p piece) which has gone to a lovely friend... read more
I might be a bit tardy about many things in life (unblocking drains, ironing, picking up spiders) but never let it be said that I shirk my responsibilities when it comes to the investigation and sampling of notebooks.
For years I have been a Moleskine diehard; embellishing my book journals with a picture of my choosing, the notebook of the moment is never far from my hand and my pen. Then I migrated to Muji for a while and that was fine too.
Occasionally I found myself going astray with a Ryman copy or a Paperchase gimmick, but eventually finding my way... read more
Our heatwave continues. I know for plenty of you it must be really uncomfortable but ne'er a moan will pass my lips after all that winter misery. I'm busy stocking up on Vitamin D and we are mostly living outside...
I hope you are all able to enjoy it in a way that suits you too.
Meanwhile two writers have had my full attention this last few weeks.
Firstly Michael Ondaatje, to whom congratulations for winning the Golden Man Booker 50th for The English Patient, and whose latest novel Warlight proved to be such a wonder that my Reading Friend and I both... read more
Listen up...it’s only a game, it’s the taking part that counts. Football will come home another year. Couldn’t bear to watch in the end. Hung the washing out... Washed the cat’s bowls... Collected some aquilegia seeds.... Watered the dahlias....
Waited for the shout of GOAL that never came.
But what a treat to see a new young England football team playing with so much promise for the future, and do we love Gareth Southgate, or do we adore Gareth Southgate.
How about you... did you get your washing hung out too...
... read more
Honestly, I've had a right old tussle with The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (published by Blue Moose Books) before it finally won the day and kept me pinned to my gravity recliner for an entire weekend.
Saw the social media buzz about it last year...
Interested given that I admire the writing of those creating the buzz but still avoided...
Picked it up in Waterstones... spotted a cover-likeness to the old Penguin Crime novels, put it down again.
More buzz getting louder...
Ordered it on my Kindle.
Started, stopped, started, not my sort of thing, got a refund.
The Gallows Pole wins the Walter Scott Prize... read more