In this week’s Tablet, I recommend a collection of letters by Colombian artist Emma Reyes, in which she describes her childhood growing up in dire poverty in 1920s Bogota. The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence, translated by Daniel Alarcón and published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, comes out in August.
The LingoBites app, created by Alsina Publishing, is a wonderful tool to learn languages by reading entertaining stories. These vary in length and style, from short tales to longer ones with more complex vocabulary. The idea is to progressively read more challenging stories as your knowledge of the language improves.
The app is incredibly intuitive, with a clear layout and a split screen. You can read the stories in the language you want to learn, which appears at the top, while checking it against the English version at the bottom. The book covers are beautiful and colourful so it’s quite addictive to read lots of pieces.
A wide array of very different writers from all over the world have created stories for LingoBites so it makes for an interesting selection.
Mine is a first and simple attempt at the thriller genre set in Stockwell. There’s an audio version in Spanish, read by actor Javier Fernandez-Peña.
Works I particularly liked were The Light Pool, a very genuine flash fiction piece by Canadian writer Mitchell Toews, and Sara’s Siren Song, a series about a male mermaid (a ‘merman’!) by American poet Beatriz F. Fernandez. There are also a couple of charming tales about animals and the sun and moon by Richard Bayley and Tere Rodriguez Nora.
Anyone can download the app and read three free stories a month. I also have a limited number of coupons entitling readers to two free months so do get in touch if interested. After that, the monthly cost of the app is very cheap anyway and it is easy to cancel the subscription. LingoBites is a lovely way of discovering new writers and learning or improving language skills. It has also created a paying market where writers can submit their short fiction, which is rare nowadays.
Aesthetic Appreciation, Flash Fiction in the 2016 issue of the Kentucky Review.
This week in the Tablet, a review of an excellent non-fiction anthology edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction.
“Too often, writing about Africa has been at a distance, a view to a place far away,” says Ellah Wakatama Allfrey in her introduction to Safe House, Explorations in Creative Nonfiction. She edited this non-fiction anthology to offer an alternative to the texts, often by Western journalists sent to Africa for news reports, that give the reader the facts from the point of view of an outsider. The book is a mix of themes chosen by the writers themselves and of commissioned pieces about specific subjects, such as Ebola and the lives of gay Africans…”
¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, edited by Pete Ayrton, reviewed for the Bookbag.
“In ¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, Pete Ayrton has chosen a majority of texts by Spanish writers, arguing that the conflict has long been written about from the point of view of the international brigades.
The anthology starts with an extract from Luis Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Breath. The passage begins in Madrid July 1936, when Franco arrived in Spain with his troops. Madrid is under siege and Buñuel describes his shock when the revolution he had so ardently desired starts. We get an understanding of the first months of the conflict, when the Republican side was disorganised and split into factions (Communists, Socialists, anarchists and the Trotskyite group POUM). He reminds us of an often forgotten aspect of the Civil War: the revolutionary attempts by the anarchists to organise their ideal world. After persecuting and murdering priests and anyone they suspected of being powerful, they attempted to start communes and to impose free love in villages such as Calanda. Buñuel’s clear exposition is a great way to start the anthology; the reader becomes familiar with the protagonists and their rivalries and grasps the state of utter confusion created by the war. (…)”
In The Tablet, three reissued books recommended this week: The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen, O Pioneers by Willa Cather and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty:
“The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, £9.99) Dinah Delacroix, an elegant, whimsical woman, tracks down two childhood friends, nostalgic for their closeness at St Agatha’s, the school where they met before the First World War. It is not a touching reunion but rather a guarded one, with excellent spiky dialogue whose disjointed sentences reveal the characters’ inner worlds. Objects take on a symbolic importance and in two instances, are treated like a treasure to be hidden for future generations…
Following my research for Litro’s ‘transgression’ theme, I spoke with an ex-gang member about his years in prison, his experience of gangs and his views on today’s gangs. Full piece on the Litro website: Little Boys with Guns
“I found the police very racist, back in the day. If you was black, you know what I mean, you were the criminal. That’s how it was. I was getting pulled up on the street three or four times a day. In the end, I was making complaints. OK, I told you I wasn’t sweet and innocent, but how can you pull somebody up, right, they’ve got radio so they know who’s been pulled up every time cos they have to do check up in the office, so they would say, oh, Mr Figaro was pulled up an hour ago. They would tell them but they still carried on.”
Jason is aware that the police may have thought they had reasons to stop and search him but feels the multiple daily stops and searches were harassment. The police also framed him for a crime he had not committed.
“I think it was in 1989, 1990, I was framed. I got two years in jail for something I didn’t even do. Because of my rap sheet, it looked like it fit the profile, so that I done it. My criminal history fitted with what happened that night.”
His treatment by the police pushed Jason further into a criminal mindset.
“It’s them kind of things that will get people to start rebelling even worse. You know, you come out, you come out with revenge. You think, if that’s how they gonna treat you, you just gonna go on a rampage.”
He tells me of his difficult years in London and Hertfordshire prisons.
“When I started going to prison, it wasn’t how they got prisons nowadays, because nowadays they got TVs in their cell, they got toilets in their cell. When I started going to prison we had to wee in a bucket and do our toilet in a bucket, make your own entertainment. We had to play cards or something like that in the cell! 20 years ago, it was really hard in jail. Really hard.”
Written for The Culture Trip website, a piece about 10 films that reflect multicultural London.
“The Road: A Story of Life & Death by Marc Isaacs (2012)
‘The Road’ in the title is the A5, which started off as a Roman trade route and joins Holyhead and Marble Arch, culminating in the Edgware Road. In this documentary, Marc Isaacs follows immigrants who have ended up somewhere along the Edgware Road. He even shows the Cricklewood Bingo hall, a dispiriting building where people flock to for company rather than just for the lure of the game. The film is poignant and the intimacy of the portraits brings to mind the work of Raymond Depardon. Showing us figures such as Buddhist monks, new and established Irish immigrants and travelers from Kashmir, this is a very multicultural film.”
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton reviewed for the Bookbag.
“Fuelling his critique is also the plentiful well of the atrocities committed by communist regimes, and glossed over by thinkers as varied as Sartre and Hobsbawm. More obscure maybe is the tale of Lukàcs, a Hungarian left-wing thinker once in vogue, who denounced ‘bourgeois’ thinkers as part of a self-righteous witch-hunt. In one moment of casual savagery, Lukàcs is partially responsible for sending Hungarian philosopher Béla Hamvas to work as an unskilled labourer in a power plant. Imagining the hard-hearted single-mindedness required to send a colleague into a life of hardship makes it easier to see where Scruton is coming from. There is danger in following ideas so blindly, while believing one is fully on the side of good, and ending up harming others without a qualm.”
Two reviews in Wasafiri’s issue 83: Land of No Rain by Amjad Nasser and Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home, a fascinating collection of essays by Palestinian writers & poets. Available for sale on the Wasafiri website.
“Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain begins with a beautiful sentence: ‘Here you are then, going back, the man who changed his name to escape the consequences of what he’d done.’ The themes of exile and return and the concept of identity are announced from the very start. The sentence is also notable for its particular rhythm, a slow enchanting movement which continues throughout the novel.
In a complex structure, we see Adham Jaber/Younis al-Khattat, a dissident who left the fictitious country of Hamiya twenty years before, returning as a dying man. Hamiya may well be based on Jordan, where Nasser comes from, and the city of Red and Grey probably stands for London, where he now lives. The use of these fictional names gives the novel an allegorical feel…”
Just reviewed Mary Higgins Clark’s new page turner, due to come out on 23rd June. The Melody Lingers On, reviewed for the Bookbag here.
“(…)Characters are sketched effectively, sometimes according to strangely corporate principles. A sign of a strong moral character is arriving to meetings on time – this is frequently referred to, and lateness is not the only failure. Adams, a man “with a full head of mostly gray hair and an aura of confidence” is “equally dismissive of people who arrived much too early. It was a sign of insecurity, which made him suspicious.” Sometimes the descriptions are nearly clichéd – an academic has a “receding hairline” and “rimless glasses”, as though chosen by the casting director of a Hollywood blockbuster. But it works, and the characters come alive as soon as they appear.
As in most Mary Higgins Clark thrillers, class features heavily and is alluded to in blatant terms. People with “impeccable backgrounds” interact with strong-willed individuals who have made it into highest ranks of society from humbler beginnings. Here, the cast features a countess with uncertain credentials, a self-made millionaire, a grocer’s daughter, a construction worker, the child of a congressman and many, many others.
The references to class would be indelicate, except that no moral judgment is made about characters relative to their background. Rather, human values are what prevail, and the narrative can sometimes show leniency towards a character with dubious ethics but guts and charm. The only unforgivable behaviour is Evil, and in Higgins Clark’s books the baddie can originate from any background. Rather, the setting of high society gives us interesting views of characters who perform, who pretend to be what they are not. In The Melody Lingers on, this impossibility of guessing who is wearing a mask keeps the reader wondering and results in a satisfying and surprising finale.
The Melody Lingers on starts more slowly than other Mary Higgins Clark thrillers but picks up and acquires an unputdownable quality half way through. The sometimes lazy writing is swept away as the vital force of the story keeps the reader glued to the page. Another compulsive read by this maestro of suspense.”
Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy reviewed for the Bookbag.
“A book about a woman from a war-shredded country, who discovers she has breast cancer… Not a bundle of laughs, one would assume. One would be wrong. Chernobyl Strawberries is, amongst other things, very funny.
Goldsworthy decided to write this memoir after her cancer diagnosis, as a record for her son. She plays on the contradictions of her life to great effect. A bourgeois from a socialist country, she doesn’t have any misery stories about Tito’s dictatorship. Indeed, she concentrates on the ridicule moments of a government in decline. The reader also witnesses the high level of education offered by the communist country. State subsidies helped poetry magazines and festivals to survive. One of the nicest things about being a poet in socialist Yugoslavia was the idea that poetry mattered, Goldsworthy observes. She was invited to read her poems in front of an audience of thirty thousand people at a commemoration for Tito, an event discreetly supervised by the police. As a student, she was also a presenter on a radio station funded by the government. These skills prove useful when she moves to London and works for the BBC.
Her early life in Belgrade is presented to us non-chronologically so that the reader constantly dips in and out of it. We get to know the young Vesna well. A confident young woman, she seems to have been successful in every ambition, while intelligent and good-looking young men courted her. The one who she finally settled on was English, and Goldsworthy moved to London.
We see her settling into her new country and the funniest moments of the book are when she contrasts her English life with the very different customs of her native country.
As a woman caught in history, Goldsworthy appears remarkably adaptable. Rather than try and influence events or engage politically, she adapts and survives with ease. She comments on the chameleon-like quality of her youth and concludes that, at forty-one, I discovered that I was no longer able to change colour at all. I stretched my white body on my big green leaf, a bald, wounded caterpillar. I was free. This journey is intelligently written. The beauty of Belgrade provides a melancholic undertone and we can only mourn, with the writer, the lost world which she conjures up.”
How to be a Heroine : Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis reviewed for the Bookbag.
“How to be a Heroine is a pleasant and addictive read. Playwright Samantha Ellis looks back at her childhood as a voracious reader and remembers the characters that influenced her. These are as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Little Women and Scheherazade.
Each chapter is titled after a heroine (Anne of Green Gables, the Dolls from the Valley), in which Ellis focuses on that particular heroine and lets her thoughts seemingly drift to other characters. Some of the heroines who inspired her are young women who write, like Anne of Green Gables or Jo March. Often their writing career ends abruptly and Ellis looks for the reasons behind this. For instance, LM Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books, had a disappointing marriage with a man who resented her success and Ellis wonders whether this could be the reason why Anne stopped writing after getting married. This habit of standing up for her heroines, defending them against unfair treatment from their creators, makes Ellis a formidable and endearing narrator. It also shows us how characters in literature escape the confines of their books and belong to the readers rather than to their creators.
Ellis, with the experience of adulthood, revisits earlier allegiances and sometimes changes her mind about them. For instance, she had always admired Cathy in Wuthering Heights but after re-reading the book, decides she is snobbish and too dramatic. Is Jane Eyre, with her calm intelligence, a better role model?
Ellis’s style is clear and frequently amusing. At one point, she wonders what Lizzie Bennett from Pride and Prejudice would have made of the Twilight series. She also looks at her heroines in the setting of their times; while Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice navigates the rules of Regency society, the women in Shakespeare refuse to play the game and instead break the rules.
Ellis allows her life to shine through until she becomes as familiar as one of the heroines. It is an interesting life; the daughter of Iraqi Jewish immigrants, she is expected to marry a man from the small pool of Iraqi Jews, a fate she rebels against. She becomes a playwright after going to Cambridge and trying out different career paths that distract her from her vocation.
These glimpses into the author’s life are fascinating. In the chapter about the women in The Valley of the Dolls, she describes her time working as an editor for a vanity press, proof-reading novels from deluded writers in which the characters change sex midway through. The description of the office and of her colleagues is precise and vivid and the publishing house comes to life in a few lines. The young Ellis’s fears are also relatable to: if these bad writers are convinced they are good, how can she be sure that she herself can write? Luckily, she has now more than answered that question.”
Here are the Young Men by Rob Doyle, an exciting first novel set in Dublin.
“Here are the Young Men surges forward, oozing edginess, from the very first sentence. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. It just means that readers may at times slip out of the story, feel themselves taking a step back and admiring the spare coolness of the novel before easing back into the narrative.
The characters, teenage boys who are awaiting the results of their Leaving Cert, feel alienated. They take drugs and walk the streets of Dublin during the Celtic Tiger boom years. The novel shines an interesting light on this recent period in Ireland’s history. In fact, viewing it from a teenage perspective is effective – everyone else seems gripped by the country’s newly found riches, living the moment and unable to see its negative aspects. The city’s wealth is obvious, flaunted in the trendy haircut of a young woman or in the impregnable gates encircling Bono’s mansion. In contrast, the young men’s dejection and aimlessness make them seem wiser than their countrymen…”
Honeyville by Daisy Waugh.
“Honeyville is like a glass of champagne: light, sparkling and impossible to put down. Daisy Waugh excels at immersing the reader in a historical era, a skill she has displayed before in Last Dance with Valentino and the Melting the Snow on Hester Street.
The story is told by Dora Whitworth, a call girl in one of the most exclusive brothels in Trinidad, Colorado. At the time, the town was the only place in the West where prostitution was legal and it was infamous for its red-light district. Dora’s voice rings true and her life is convincingly described. The sumptuous brothel in Plum Street, with its smells of perfume and disinfectant, is as claustrophobic as a prison and Phoebe, the madam, particularly chilling.
Dora becomes friends with Inez, a younger woman from a wealthy local family. The friendship would be unlikely in normal circumstances. The town is owned by men and they’ve managed to keep their women separate, with the marrying type living alongside the ‘fallen women’ but both sets divided by an invisible barrier. But this is the start of tumultuous times. The union is urging the miners to strike, pitting them against the mining company and the town’s rich owners. Lawlessness takes over. This will result in the Ludlow massacre of 1914, the tragedy which inspired the novel.
There is something thrilling about novels set amid traumatic historic moments. Graham Greene did it and so did Ronan Bennett in The Catastrophist, in which Patrice Lumumba’s Congo is the backdrop to a hopeless love story. It should be wrong to use history in such a way but nothing beats the atmosphere it creates or the political and ideological questions which arise as a result. Waugh, in an after note, says she was annoyed at how biased journalist Max Eastman was when reporting from Trinidad (Eastman plays an important role in the novel, too). A socialist, he denounced Trinidad’s elite for its attitude to the miners. Waugh’s own belief that things are never as black and white comes across in her narrative.
Also, placing characters in such troubled times enables the writer to reveal unexpected facets of their personalities as they react to extraordinary events. Here, the story rests on a strong cast of characters. Each has a set of qualities and foibles which brings them vividly alive. Dora is a worldly narrator. Hers has been a hard life but she is neither petty nor bitter; she appears to be de-sensitised and it is a pleasure to witness her starting to feel again as a result of her new friendship.
Indeed, friendship is an important theme in Honeyville – the meeting between the two women is shown as a precious, fragile occurrence. Love, or lust, on the other hand, is depicted as an overwhelming force, impossible to resist. The sexual chemistry between the exquisite Inez and tough union man Lawrence O’Neill jumps out of the page and makes the ensuing mystery all the more credible. The plot, spanning twenty years, is both subtle and solid and readers will be rewarded with a satisfying ending.“
I have just reviewed By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel for the Bookbag and you can read the full review here. It is an excellent book and the first by the author to have been translated into English. Back in 2011, we’d heard about him because of the hunger strike he started in protest of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s dictatorial rule. The ensuing harassment by the authorities led him to having to move to Spain. He writes an interesting blog and his previous books can be found on various Spanish websites including casadellibro.com.
“(…)It raises so many issues, both political and economic, caused by the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, that it attracts attention for its scope alone. The story transcends the small island and its protagonists. It is the classic and ever tragic tale of a wealthy and repressive elite keeping its subjects in poverty and isolation.
It is the perfectly pitched tone, however, and the simplicity of the recounting that make it a truly polished work. The writer has excised anger and moralising from his writing and his craft is neatly at work in the background, leaving the illusion of a story that weaves itself as it goes along. The result is a luminous tapestry of people reacting in different ways to the assaults of natural catastrophes, accidents and economic hardship.
This is the first book by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel to have been translated into English. Jethro Soutar has done an exquisite job, in particular in rendering the rhythm of the writing. It is to be hoped that he will also translate the author’s other works. ”
Recent review for TheBookbag of Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel.
Clara’s Daughter, in the short space of 144 pages, paints the portrait of the relationships threatening to destroy a family unit. The intensity is conveyed with sharp stabs from Ziervogel’s spare sentences.
Michele’s mother Clara can no longer live on her own. Should she be put into a home, as Jim, Michele’s husband, insists on? Or should she move into Michele’s basement? Filial love doesn’t seem to play a part in the ultimate decision. Concerns over the inheritance on the part of Hilary, Michele’s emotionally manipulative sister, and Michele’s own guilt are the driving forces. The daughters are caught up in the demanding routines of busy lives, leaving little time to analyse and feel. Clara is more clear-eyed. In her role of matriarch, she will eventually see the extent of the unfolding tragedy much more accurately than the others do. The pain this causes her will jolt her out of her own dejection.
We feel sorry for Michele, who is a bound by her unemotional personality (a ‘cold fish’, in the words of her mother). But Clara is the most tragic character. A complex woman, mother of two middle-aged daughters, she’s always been defined in relation to them. Yet when she works at her pottery, we get a feeling of a potential misused talent, of a yearning to do other things. But Clara finds it impossible to escape domesticity and after a promising sculpture of a mother and daughter, spends years making indifferent vases. The symbolism of the mother/daughter sculpture is potent. It looms over the book. Is it Clara’s best sculpture because its subject was so important to her? Michele is aware of the honour of receiving the statuette as a gift, but her husband scoffs at it.
Jim is described as ‘accommodating’ yet it is his intransigence, brought on by an untimely middle-aged crisis, which endangers the couple’s relationship. His character is subtly drawn, even though his reactions are no different to those of similar men, in similar novels and films. In such a situation, the range of gestures available to people is limited, especially in the setting of an upper middle class Hampstead household. But the force that drives him, the final, mulish single-mindedness, we recognise as one of the tragic masculine waves capable of destroying everything before them. The area of the potential disaster is small – a comfortable family in North London – yet Ziervogel’s talent means the reader cares about the outcome of the drama. She uses flashbacks of the couple’s warm embraces to precisely convey how harmonious their marriage used to be. She circles the defining incident between them with these flashbacks and with leaps forward in time. This structure works well; it feels like the autopsy of a network of family relationships, with the writer as a highly skilled pathologist and the readers as mesmerized medical students.
Wreaking by James Scudamore, reviewed for The Bookbag.
A derelict mental hospital, gloomy railway arches, the bleak countryside of the English coast. It all comes at us in grey flashes. If Wreaking was a film, it would saturated with cool tones. It’s an easy novel to visualise: Scudamore’s spare, elegant style creates an almost palpable atmosphere.
The main characters, Jasper Scriven and his daughter Cleo, are estranged. Their difficult relationship is based on painful past events, which for most of the book we can only guess at. Their attempts at communication have us holding our breaths. Indeed, the intricacies of the father-daughter relation are the most gripping elements of this novel. Each tentative telephone conversation is like a battle between them. There are no screaming rows but silence proves to be as important as words and is certainly more threatening. It is easy to relate to both characters. Both are loners; they have a self-sufficiency which is close to harshness yet is laced with vulnerability. But it’s Cleo who we fear for during the phone conversations and during the flashbacks to the past.
The flashbacks take us to Wreaking, the derelict psychiatric hospital which Scriven bought when Cleo was a child and where he continues his reclusive existence. Roland and Oliver, who were teenage friends of Cleo’s when she lived at Wreaking, were also affected by events there.
In particular, Roland, a hulking man who works for seedy characters in a labyrinth of railways arches, is still haunted by what happened. We follow him around the rainy London streets, tortured by his thoughts and uncomfortable in his large body. In fact the other characters are constantly aware of their bodies too – Scriven needs an oxygen mask to breathe and Cleo often fiddles with her glass eye.
If the bodies cause discomfort, mental health looms large over the characters, which is unsurprising in a novel featuring an old psychiatric hospital. As the story unveils in complex layers, we realise that nothing is definite. Sanity, memory and identity prove unstable. The structure of the novel, told in a mix of flashbacks and of present and past tenses, mirrors this (…)