Memory of Water

 

m of w

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

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”.

Let’s judge a book by its cover

I read somewhere that 70% of people who walk into bookshops are browsers. In other words, they simply don’t know what they want. The fact that browsers are open to anything that catches their eye, means that chances are they’ll grab those books with interesting covers. Because, tough as it is, books do get judged by their cover.

So let’s have a look at some examples. But before we go ahead, let me tell you that all of the following books made it to this blog entry, mainly, by the way they look (oh yes, let’s be vain!).

The “I’m so different” cover

These are the covers that stand out because they look different. A great deal of design it’s put into them, they make you smile and therefore have more chances of making it into your shopping basket. These covers are simply beautiful. The latest of these books that came to my attention is a novel called Freshta by Czech writer Petra Procházková.

Remove all the fonts and you’ll be left with a wonderful work of art that could easily have a place in my living room.

If curious to learn more about Freshta visit Stork Press’ website by clicking here.

The” made- into-film” book cover

This is one of the most infuriating marketing strategies ever. A book makes it into the big screen and therefore gets reprinted with a still of the film as cover! Message between the lines? Now that it’s a film, we WILL sell this book.

Marie Antoinette, the film, got released in 2006 and as a result, the cover of this award winning biography was changed to feature a still of Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette. The 18th century is no where to be seen in this cover, the dominating pink colour makes it look closer to chick lit than to a serious and well researched biography. One word: rubbish.

Leaving anger aside, let’s move on.

The” less is more” cover

How about those covers where less is not necessarily more? Sometimes, simplicity is not effective. A perfect example of incredibly good novels with simple covers are those published by And Other Stories. All their books follow pretty much the same kind of design in an attempt to make a recognisable brand out of their books. I’m not convinced of how effective this could be, having in mind that browser who visits bookshops looking to be winked at.

For example, this cover do not speak to me. It simply doesn’t, and I think it’s is a missed opportunity to grab more readers.

Now, the “less is more” cover is distant cousins of the “image doesn’t match the story” cover.

And for these, I have to use the Spanish edition of  Mario Vargas Llosas’ La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat). The novel is set in the Dominican Republic and its plot revolves around the assassination of the cruel dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. Now a look at the cover! What is this! Well, looking at the tiny letters where all the copyright credits are, I found out that this image  is part of a fresco by Italian painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti called Allegory to Bad Government, c. 1338. As I scratch my head, I wonder if the publisher thought that Vargas Llosas’ readers are also experts in Medieval Italian art history.

The Sci- fi covers

I must confess here that I am not a science fiction reader but my home is flooded by all sorts of these novels as my husband reads nothing but sci fi. The covers are really fascinating ones, weird and complex.

For instance, check this Peter F. Hamilton cover for The Evolutionary Void. Brilliant! This is a monument to the “what you see is what you get” cover. An incredible amount of detail goes into each one of his best selling books, and I know that the plot never fails to be intriguing, ground breaking and different, just as the cover.

The “I’m a photograph” cover

Another type of covers have photographs at its core. We’ve all seen them as they are a resource that I believe is quite successful as sometimes people relate quicker to a photograph than perhaps an abstract design. A perfect example is the novel The Confidant by French author Hélène Grémillon. Look at it,  a beautiful pic. Goes without saying that the story is set in France and it involves two lovers, exactly like the ones in the photograph.

Interestingly, if you have a look at Gallic Books‘ website, you’ll see that all of Guillaume Musso’s covers are photographs? Perhaps a favourite strategy by this independent publisher?

The Retro Cover

We could spend a life time talking about retro covers. Penguin Books being the masters of it, celebrating the designs that stand the test of time and cleverly associating it to no other that their classics. Thumbs up!

But having said that and avoiding the obvious choice,  I need to celebrate the cover of Once Upon a Time in England, the second novel by Helen Walsh. A family looking into the distance surrounded by this wall paper kind of  design reminding us precisely of one of the years the novel is set in: 1975.

For any book lover, covers are a crucial aspect of our reading experience. I don’t know about you but I’ve read fantastic books with covers so hideous that I feel ashamed of; and I’ve also become a notorious contortionist just to find out what my fellow passenger is reading. The publishing industry invests hours and talent in designing book covers that will sell books but it seems like the e-readers and Kindles are decided to take that from us. For a curious commuter and book cover police like me, it frustrates me enormously not being able to find out what all of those Kindle users are reading, simply because I can’t judge that book by its cover.

Happiness, love and time

Belgravia Books has given me the joy of coming across new authors. Some of them really well known in the UK (but out of my radar) and others who have sold millions of copies (and I wasn’t one of those enthusiastic buyers). But is never late to learn new things and discover new favourite books. This is how I was introduced to François Lelord. A French author who decided to leave his successful career as a psychiatrist to write about the main three concerns of all human beings: Happiness, Love and Time. In that order.

Lelord created a fantastic character called Hector, a psychiatrist who is not entirely enjoying life and decides to to take round the world trips searching for the best ways to understand what makes us happy, why we fall in love and to learn of passage of time. Hector’s Journeys are three novels written, let say, for the ordinary reader in a very simple narrative form and in a fairy tale style. They do begin with Once upon a time!

In the trilogy, Hector writes a series of notes that guide the reader and invite us to give them a practical use. For example, in Hector and the Search of Happiness , Hector shares his lessons which are a reminder for us readers that happiness sometimes is found in simple things. ” Lesson no. 3: Many people see happiness only in the future”.  Or what about: “Lesson no. 16: Happiness is knowing how to celebrate”.  How many times we see ourselves feeling miserable for nothing? Well, I think this is the book that should be read by everybody to remind us that life is full of reasons to be happy but overall that happiness should be shared.

Hector and the Secrets of Love is a slightly more complex novel in the sense that more characters come into the picture. But again, Lelord keeps Hector writing notes on those rational elements of love and also of heartache. (If you never felt either of those please do write me a note so I can forward it to Monsieur Lelord, he’ll be fascinated).  Let me give you an example: “Seedling no. 13: Passion in love can be terribly unfair”. Sounds familiar? Here’s another: ” Seedling no. 21: Love proves itself when put to the test”. 

And finally, his latest novel Hector Finds Time, its well, about time but also about life and how we live it through the passing of the years. In this book, Hector gives us exercises to help us understand this very abstract concept that rule our lives, sometimes with no mercy at all. (hello wrinkles!) Here’s how he does it: Time exercise No. 4: Think of all the people and things you are not paying enough attention to now, because one day they will be gone and then it will be too late.  

Without giving too much away, I believe the great thing about these three little novels is that each one is a simple recipe to live a better life. It goes pretty much in the way that love and happiness are all around you and its up to us to look out for them and grab it. The passing of time is inevitable, so deal with it and use time intelligently. For me that would mean being happy and keeping love around you.

In a session early this week at Belgravia Books, François Lelord said that he found easier to tackle these topics through simple lessons than writing an academic self help book as was first expected by his publishers at the time. The truth is that it’s no surprise that Lelord has sold millions of copies and his novels put a smile on my face. The issue is to give them to one or two people I know without them feeling I think they are sad, sad creatures (I just believe there is room for improvement!)

François Lelord is published in the UK by Gallic Books.

Forget stylish Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of those cities that have been lucky enough to be associated with trendiness. Just close your eyes for a moment and think Buenos Aires. What comes to mind? Carlos Gardel, couples dancing tango in the picturesque barrio de la Boca , a great and juicy steak and even Jorge Luis Borges is there waving at you while walking to the National Library.

Well, if that is your idea of Buenos Aires better not read 7 Ways to Kill a Cat. That sexy and stylish city is nowhere to be seen. It’s too far away from the harsh everyday reality of the characters of this novel by Matías Néspolo.

The story takes place in a shanty town in the outskirts of Buenos Aires,  a place of extreme poverty where violence, drug trafficking and crime affects everybody. This is a place where not even childhood will spare you being dragged into gang warfare. Either you join or you die. As simple as that. But the interesting thing about the setting of the novel is that, in theory, this place could be anywhere in the world during a financial crisis. It could well be a shanty town in the outskirts of Mexico City, Chicago, Paris or Delhi. The way violence affects people and the way it’s inhabitants behave to protect their lives would be exactly the same.

7 Ways to Kill a Cat is not a bubble gum novel. The characters have no way out, no happy endings here, no opportunities for a better life, no success story, no love story that makes you smile either. But through the narration of our protagonist Gringo, we can see sparks of kindness and friendship that makes the whole thing even more tragic.

“I just don’t want any more grief. These guys are vicious bastards. You plan them on their home ground, you lose. Better to give them a wide berth.” (p.74)

For me, the element that I found incredibly clever is the presence of Moby DickGringo after brutally assaulting and stealing a large sum of money from Fat Farias, takes a trip to Buenos Aires deciding to spend as much as possible. Since the story is set in Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, Gringo finds all the shops in sale and slashing prices. It’s hard to spend money! But surprisingly (for me, the reader) he gets hold of a copy of Henry Mellville’s Moby Dick not knowing exactly why and what to expect. From that point onwards, the “whale book” plays an important role in accompanying Gringo’s life.

“Like Ishmael, I’ve got more than enough to get to hell and back. What do I do? I open the book to look for advise, to see what the guy in the book has to say, and the loco comes out with some shit…” (p. 151)

There are certain moments in the novel, where in a brilliant way the speed of events Gringo’s life run parallel to Moby Dick’s plot, working as a mirror between fiction and reality. In many ways the pages of this classic lead him to reflect and think about the reality around him. For example, when reading about Moby Dick being white as milk, he says:

“The weird thing was the kids with the whitest smocks were usually the ones who were starving. It was like you could eliminate povery with bleach, scrub out stigma with soap.” (p. 109).

I liked the fact that it starts and ends with the same phrase. However, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is definitely a  stronger novel in the second part. Another slightly weak point is, in my opinion, an excess of characters that distracted me. I think the story is powerful enough with memorable people like Gringo, Chueco, Mamina, Fat Farias and Quique. The presence of others such as El pampita or el negro Sosa  do not add anything crucial to the plot and could even appear as ghostly figures that Néspolo asks us to remember with no apparent reason.

Overall, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is a pleasant and entertaining read that shares the atmosphere of Fernando Meirelles’ film City of God. I guess that gives you a clue of what to expect.

Ps. I am usually reluctant to read English translations on books written in Spanish, because I rather be exposed directly to the author’s writing. But in this case I had to read it in English. At first, I must confess I found it hard to imagine these characters speaking English and throwing words such as viejo, m’hijo, truco, compañero, mate, etc. It felt artificial and stiff but I guess avoiding that is part of the huge challenge of translating street slang. However, as the story flowed I totally forgot about this and got absolutely immersed in the narrative. I ended up being grateful that these key words were left in Spanish, because it’s the only reference that reminds you the story is taken place in Argentina. I say, if you are a Spanish speaker, give the translator a chance.