I’m Back or On Why I did not Blog for Over a Year

It’s been more than a year since my last blog post on Memory of Water. My excuse for this silence is well, I had a baby girl on 12 May 2014!

fine balanceOn my last day at work, my wonderful colleagues at Belgravia Books gave me a pile of books that promised to make the wait for baby more bearable and less boring. Well, baby took it’s time and in between cooking and freezing, packing and re packing, going swimming (going floating really) I started a big fat novel called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

At 600 plus pages and a particularly small font, the novel symbolised my resignation that baby was officially overdue. There would be long days ahead of me.

Without giving much away, the novel is set in India in the late seventies during the period known as The Emergency. As usual, I knew nothing of this chaotic episode in India’s history but the great triumph of the novel are the characters. On one hand Mistry gives a heart breaking insight to life in Bombay’s slums, and on the other depicts the never ending struggles of the middle class to remain there. The clashes between rural and urban life are also a key element on the development of the characters in the story.

Half way into the book, Paloma was born. In the few moments of peace and quiet in hospital I found myself wondering about what was in store for my characters. In particular, the tailors and aunty Dina. They felt like family and in a surreal way I was worried about them.

Back at home and in between naps, I managed to finish the novel. It took me 3 months but every page was worth it. I had the best of both worlds, a sleeping baby and a good book.

Memory of Water

 

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This novel came to my hands as a proof copy sent to work by Harper Collins (thank you for the freebie!). It was one of those days when you feel like reading something completely random and the thought of a young Finnish author caught my attention. I know very little about Finland and the cover looked weird enough to give it a go (yes, I do judge books by their covers, ready my post about book covers here). The point is, I had no idea I was in for a literary treat.

For some strange reason I always end up reading historical fiction or miserable novels. I am incapable of recommending people a happy book. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to read a good funny book and sad stories tend to bring the best of authors. It’s a mystery.

So there I was with my copy of Memory of Water which looked to be a serious read with secrets and intrigue at the core of the plot. Yes please!  This is a superb first novel by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta which will leave you thinking about the things we take for granted:  water and freedom.  The story is set in the near future, at a time when China rules the world and the impact of climate change has left the planet with no seasons and most importantly with a critical shortage of water.

Noria and her family are the tea masters of the village in what is called then the Scandinavian Union. They have a special relationship with water; one that brings secrets that are simply and too dangerous to share. Police rations water to all villagers but as it becomes scarce, and after her father’s death, Noria is decided to share the location of a secret spring. The consequences are well, you can imagine… disastrous.

If you like Margaret Atwood’s novels, you’ll love Memory of Water and please don’t pay too much attention to the cover and give this novel a chance. It’s worth it!

P.S. You can follow Emmi on Twitter @emmi_elina

 

 

 

 

Hate the character, love the book

commandantIs it possible to like novel featuring a protagonist that is evil and unscrupulous? Or is it that we admire the author’s ability to construct a character that will give us the creeps as the story unfolds? In order to find the answer to these questions I dare you to read Monsieur Le Commandant (Gallic Books).

In this outstanding book, Romain Slocombe gives life to Paul-Jean Husson, a character that you will find very hard to forget. This is an epistolary novel centred in one letter only addressed to a Secret Service Commandant. We are presented with one narrative voice which is that of Mr Husson. So don’t get too upset demanding ‘the other side of the story’. There will never be one.

So, who is Paul-Jean Husson? Our protagonist is a retired WWI hero, powerful, arrogant, also a novelist and on top of that a Nazi sympathiser. Needless to say, the anti-Semitic element is pretty much a key part of his personality but things get nasty when he falls desperately in love with his son’s German wife Ilse. And to make matters worse, after he investigates her background, he finds out that she’s Jewish. Well, if you think this sounds bad enough, Monsieur Le Commandant has many more surprises in store for you.

There’s no question that Mr Husson is a despicable character. The things he says in his letter to ‘Monsieur le Commandant’ are shocking and offensive but we must remember that Paul-Jean Husson is overall a man of his time.  So before you throw the book in rage remember this is 1942 and although it may be hard to believe, this novel is a reminder that there were people who thought persecuting Jewish people wasn’t such a bad idea.

‘The Jewish question has been often been misunderstood. I do not criticise the Yids for their work ethic . . . or for their notorious business acumen. As you know as well as I, the gravity of the situation is that the Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are to be found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilization of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome.’ (p.43)

It is hard to read some of these lines in the present time and not think in horror how could someone say and do such things? But I applaud Romain Slocombe for creating such a despicable character such as Paul-Jean Husson.  Why? For the simple reason that he is a reminder that we’ve come a long way and we must work together to make the world a better place.

Bitter Almonds or The Privilege of Literacy

bitterThey say that giving a book to someone is also giving a commitment as people expect you to read it. This is how Bitter Almonds fell into my hands.

As many of you, I have a reading waiting list and I promise myself not to buy more books until I’ve read the ones I have in that never ending pile. I must confess I was reading something else when Bitter Almonds appeared. With not too much room in my bag I carried the book in my hand and while on the bus I started reading it. The rest is history. I was hooked.

This is perhaps one of the lesser known novels by the French writer Laurence Cossé. But certainly one that had a strong impact in me and that I’ll remember for a long time. The idea behind the novel is simple: literacy.

For many reading and writing is as natural as breathing. I can’t even remember that process in my childhood. I was born in a family of readers, in a house with a library that keeps on growing and where you’ll be able to find all sorts of books from classics to mountaineering and landscape gardening books. Reading has always been there, but not for Fadila, Bitter Almonds’ main character.

One day, any day, Edith, receives her new housemaid: Fadila, a 60 year old Moroccan lady. Nothing unusual there except that Fadila is illiterate. And this is when the story becomes heartbreaking and an eye opener. Edith is determined to teach Fadila to read and write, and in this process the world of Fadila opens to the reader. Just imagine not using public transport such as the underground because you’re unable to read the stations or the map.

Even more, finding your bearings in a big city rely on your memory, street names mean nothing to you. Fadila always takes the bus, the same bus and if there’s a change of route she panics and can’t get to get to work. Using a cash point is unthinkable and therefore the only way is to ask a cashier in a bank to help you fill the slips. Needless to say, Fadila can’t do numbers either. The novel is set in modern day Paris, a city where, like many others, literacy is a given. In today’s world we look around assuming the written word speaks to everyone. But very few times we sit back to think about those who did not have the opportunity or the gift of literacy.

Fadila’s journey into learning is truly a very difficult one. I’ve never tried to teach anyone to read and write and since recommending this book on Twitter I was contacted by teachers who read the book and told me that Edith’s and Fadila’s experience was beyond painful and frustrating.

I come from a country where illiteracy is not unheard of and as a book lover is easy to forget it. The great achievement of a novel such as Bitter Almonds is that takes you to the core of a life shared by many people all over the world.

In a nutshell, never take literacy for granted.

All About Mothers

cancion_de_tumba_julian_herbert_medIn recent months, for no specific reason I’ve found myself reading stories about mothers. One is the brilliant Canción de Tumba (something like Song of Tomb, a game of words in Spanish where a ‘canción de cuna’ is a lullaby and when changing 2 letters sound like tomb… got it?).  Anyways, in this book the author, Julian Hebert, narrates the story of his life with his mother, a prostitute, who is dying of leukaemia. If there are any publishers looking to translate an absolute jewel of Mexican contemporary literature, please look no further.

mother departsThe second title is Mother Departs by Tadeusz Rózewicz, Poland’s most celebrated writer and poet. Rózewicz has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and it’s one of those authors I am so glad to have discovered.

Mother Departs can be described as the portrait of a life. A truly moving read in which Rózewicz mixes diary entries, notes and poems. The book is wrapped in an atmosphere full nostalgia as it becomes a celebration of the life of: Stefania Rózewicz, his mother.

I found particularly interesting the fact that Stefania herself has a voice in the book  as she narrates her life as a child in the village of Szynkielew. This is a testimony of a world and a way of life long gone. Here she talks about traditions, culture and everyday life in rural Poland in the early twentieth century. Witty and observant, Stefania’s contribution to this book is one that certainly stands out.

The poems included in Mother Departs are also a pleasure to read, especially The Tear and The Photograph. As we move in time, Stefania becomes old and frail. And once again we witness the anguish of a man looking at  his mother fading away. Both Herbert and Rózewicz, in two completely different styles, narrate with an impeccable choice of words the last days in the life of their mothers. Heartbreaking yes, but the literary value of these books lay within the ability of these authors to talk about death with great beauty. In the final pages of Mother Departs, Rózewicz writes:

‘My Good Beloved Old Lady, it’s hard to breathe. But I am writing this like a letter to you. You were my trepidation, fear and joy and breath. I’m kissing your parched hands and swollen legs, dearest, your eyes – your blue hands as you died. I’m kissing your agonised body, which I gave back to our great mother – the earth.’ (p. 106)

They say no one is ever prepared for the death of their mother. I just hope I have many years ahead to enjoy the company of mine, a lady who is, and will always be, an extraordinary woman.

Mother Departs is published in the UK by Stork Press and translated from Polish by Barbara Bogoczek.

Looking for ‘marranos’ with Jeffrey Lewis

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Like many people I very rarely read hardbacks. Mainly for two reasons: they are heavy and don’t fit in my bag. (As you all know I don’t do e-books, so no Kindle for me and I’m happy this way!)

In the last few weeks I’ve been receiving an exceptional amount of books from publishers in regards to work events. But as they say, when someone gives you a book there’s an expectation, which also means homework. This is how a copy of The Inquisitor’s Diary came to my hands. It was left at the bookshop were I work and I almost fainted in terror when I saw it was a hardback.

The good omens were with me as a) wasn’t too heavy and b) had the perfect handbag size. I started reading it on the bus on my way home and I was instantly hooked with the story written in the form of a 17-Century friar in Colonial Mexico and which had to do with a little known historical episode: that of the hunt of secret Jews or marranos. For those Spanish speakers, the word marrano is simply pig and it’s still widely used today. But back in the 16 and 17 century Spain, marrano was used to refer to converted Jews and their religious prohibition to eating pork.

Jeffrey Lewis, author of the book was blown away with this story when he randomly bought a second hand copy of a book called A History of the Marranos by historian Cecil Roth. He then knew he had the perfect setting for a novel.

In 1492, as many as 800,000 Jews were expelled from Spain under the Edict of Expulsion issued by Ferdinand and Isabel of Castile. During this period, up to 50,000 Jews converted (perhaps by force) to the Catholic faith, becoming known ‘marranos‘. Trying to escape the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of converted Jews arrived into the New World, especially into what is today Mexico and the South West of the United States, looking for a new life.

Our main character, Fray Alonso, has been sent by the Inquisition to the northern territories of New Spain in search of those marranos. which as we’ll see where nowhere to be found. This is 1649 and the journey is as tough as it could possibly: harsh conditions, lack of water, heat, a kind of black plague and even an Apache attack is suffered. Desperate not to go back to Mexico City empty handed, Fray Alonso turns to the cook of the group, a mute man that he’ll call the Dumb One and who he will accuse of heresy. His marrano has been found. But is it really?

In The Inquisitor’s Diary Fray Alonso also takes a journey into himself, questioning his faith, morality and even his own sanity. In conversation with the author at Belgravia Books, Jeffrey said that this story is also about the very thin line that exists in proving someone’s believes and the power of the freedom of consciousness.

The author turned to Saint Augustine’s Confessions as well as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis to build up the voice of this fascinating character that we hate and feel pity at the same time.

The plot of the novel is much more complex than this, there’s political rivalry and Fray Alonso’s desire of being transferred to Spain makes him capable of unimaginable things for a ‘man of God’. Overall The Inquisitor’s Diary was a very, very enjoyable read that made the hardback format so irrelevant,

All you need is less

I wonder if you share the feeling. One day you get out of bed and suddenly realize that there are way too many books in the flat. They don’t fit in the bookshelves any more, there are so many that you can’t even see them as they are in double piles. Some have been sitting there for so long that the sun has even changed their colour, leaving the covers with weird marks. Others, are just buried under a cloud of dust capable to give you a 10 minute sneeze attack by only flicking the pages. Something has to be done.

The process goes as follows. You stand in front of the bookshelves and choose which books to donate to your local charity (I give mine to the British Heart Foundation because they look genuinely interested and grateful for my books). You fail the first attempt: all seem precious, relevant and useful.

Attempt #2  involves being very, very honest with yourself. Are you really going to re- read all these books? As the answer is no, you start moving books around and having a proper look. But what do you find?

The “denied ownership” book

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You’re horrified to find a copy of The Da Vinci Code. Can’t be. You don’t read that kind of literature. Well, it’s there to remind you of weaker times in your life. The second horror moment comes from finding foreign language dictionaries. Did I really studied German, Italian, Russian and Japanese? You won’t miss them really. Be brave, find them a better home.

The “I never really liked it” book

The exercise is now becoming more of a behavioural analysis. You then pull that book that you read ages ago and didn’t like it. In fact, you don’t even remember what is it about (that’s how big its impact was in your life). Why keep it?

Signed book = can’t let go

Books2102FranciscoGoldmanThis one is really tough. Books under this category can potentially share the dust treatment. You bought the book at an event, got it signed by the author, read it and well, it was just not your thing. You know it’s taking up space but can’t let go: it’s signed by the author. Looks like you’re doomed to keep it.

I have a book like those. For some it’s a great and necessary book but I found it just too grim and sad to carry on reading. It’s called The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman. I didn’t finish it, but it has a nice dedication after I helped in his UK visit. I didn’t get to meet him and he  still sent me the copy as a thank you. Should I? Surely not!

The “bought 6 years ago” book

Arthur and George

These are a classic! They work like those clothes you buy thinking you’ll fit in them once you lose weight. Truth is that those books sit there for ages being neglected. You pick them up every now and then, remove the layers of dust, and think “nah, not now”. And there it goes another year! The perfect example in my bookshelves of that kind of book is Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. I even tweeted asking if it was worth reading it! Answers were very positive but still ended in the charity shop. Sorry.

As hours go by you find it’s getting a little bit easier: if you let that book get so incredibly dusty it’s because you don’t really care that much about it. Come on, let’s be honest. But as I fill my bag of unwanted books I keep asking myself, why is it so hard to detach myself from books if they are just sitting there!

Perhaps the answer flows in the same direction as why we keep objects around us. Books are part of our lives, they grow with us, they accompany us in our travels, they share the coffee with us in the morning (especially when you spill it on it) and are the teddy bears of the grown ups.

Giving books away is hard. Trust me, every time I go to my local charity shop I can’t help explaining my action as if I was committing a crime.  “I love my books, they don’t fit any more, and all we need is less”. That’s what I said to the lady at the charity shop who clearly doesn’t care, gives me a big smile and says “thank you for your donation”.