July reading round-up

Is it this time again already? The month started so well, with our lovely lovely holiday in Cornwall where I did a whole lotta reading. But since then I have finished just one more book. One. In two and a half weeks. It’s like I overindulged on holiday and needed to lay off for a while! And I’ve not got through many short stories either because I usually listen to them at the gym and, well, I’ve not been to the gym a whole lot this month. Truly, I am disappointed with myself. I’ve also been a bit rubbish at posting reviews.

Clearly I need to buck up for August. My stack of books for next month’s reading is pretty big already, but on the plus side I’m looking forward to every single one. (And I’m already partway through two of them, which may help my goals a tiny bit.)

August book stack

Books read

The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky (review here)

Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill (review here)

Ashes by Sergios Gakas (review here)

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman (review to follow)

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (review to follow)

Short stories read

“The children’s grandmother” by Sylvia Townsend Warner (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Cryptology” by Leonard Michaels (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Special delivery” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“A fair exchange” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“The quiet librarian by Emma Newman (available online here)

“Wilderness” by Sarah Hall (online here)

Sunday Salon: Women on banknotes? Oh my.

The Sunday Salon

So there’s been a bit of controversy lately about women on UK banknotes, or rather the lack of them. It began in April when the Bank of England announced that from 2016, Winston Churchill will replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note. This caused a bit of an upset because Fry is currently the only woman on any of the four UK banknotes. In fact, the announcement led people to take a look at the full list of figures ever featured on our banknotes and notice that women have always had pretty low representation. Which started a whole equal representation campaign.

Following this campaign, this week the Bank of England announced that the next £10 note will feature Jane Austen (also in 2016). So that’s alright then, isn’t it? They’ve picked a historically significant woman, and a writer to boot. I should be thrilled!

The thing is, Jane Austen is not the woman I would have chosen. She’s not even the writer I would have chosen and I’d probably have leaned toward woman scientist over woman writer, to be honest. Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Dorothy Hodgkin – they all have a much stronger case for how much they contributed to the betterment of society and as role models than Jane Austen, surely?

But that’s not to say that literature can’t contribute to society. Clearly I don’t believe that. Perhaps it’s because I’m not an Austen fan, but she’s just never seemed particularly revolutionary to me. She was a woman, yes, and that in itself was unusual for the time. But that can’t be enough to make her an admirable figure. She wrote about a very narrow section of society. I hate to repeat the trope that she only wrote about money and marriage, but there is something in that accusation.

So which woman writer would I choose? Obviously she must be British and meet the other Bank of England criteria (which are currently under review, following the whole Churchill debacle). Well, I’m not the biggest George Eliot fan either (I loved Silas Marner, was less thrilled with Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and gave up on The Mill on the Floss – but that was a long time ago so please don’t judge me!) but she certainly seems to have covered a lot more of British society than Austen. I am a fan of Virginia Woolf and she was central to an artistic movement (Modernism), co-founded a publishing house (Hogarth Press) and contributed a lot to the growth of feminism. However, she might be considered too controversial for the Bank of England, between her bisexuality, depression and suicide. I hope not.

Which British female historical figures do you think deserve to be honoured on our banknotes? Do any novelists rank up there for you? Do you think this is even a debate that needs to happen or do you shy away from positive discrimination? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Everyone lives in the world they deserve

Ashes
by Sergios Gakas
translated from Greek by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

Ashes

I took this book on holiday with me because crime is usually a good bet for an absorbing throwaway read. This book didn’t quite live up to that expectation, being both better than expected but also in some ways worse. I probably need to explain.

For a start this is one of the more literary police procedurals I have ever read, inasmuch as the writing is very good, a little experimental even, and it doesn’t follow the expected rules of the genre. Now that may partly be because it’s Greek, and perhaps they have their own set of rules. I’m not familiar enough with Greek literature to know. But this certainly didn’t read like it was slotting into a template.

“Let me break your seal, Stoli, my love. My red beauty, come here, give yourself to me, transparent like all my mistakes…I don’t feel good, damned wine, it’s all your fault. Armchair – prepare yourself. My sweet throne, I’m coming…Who’s that creeping around outside – who’s after my vodka? It burns, the bitch…It burns like hell: fight ice with ice, fire with fire…No! My face is burning, don’t, why won’t you listen to me? No, please.”

There are some familiar themes. The detective, Police Colonel Chronis Halkidis, is middle-aged, divorced, disillusioned, addicted to cigarettes (and some rather stronger illegal drugs to boot) and doesn’t follow the rules. So far, so familiar. I didn’t warm to Halkidis, especially as his addictions and methods became, well, worse. But that’s fine, I don’t need to like the main character.

“Three dark-haired types with shiny accordions were playing songs, a hybrid, it seemed, of children’s songs and revolutionary battle cries. The audience was singing along, miming the foreign lyrics with adolescent uncertainty. They were happy. I hated them. I ducked quickly into the toilet and snorted two fat lines of powder… Everyone lives in the world they deserve, and my particular world cannot take any more accordion music.”

The book opens with the crime and follows the police investigation, which again sounds traditional enough. The crime in question is the burning to the ground of a house in a suburb of Athens, a fire which takes hold so quickly that three of the house’s occupants are killed almost immediately and the fourth, a formerly famous actress called Sonia Varika, is left in intensive care with severe burns.

“‘Do you believe in God?’
‘No.’
‘Pity. If you did, I would recommend prayer. It would save me the more pedestrian option, where I explain to you that the human body is a machine, with a highly complex mechanism that we barely understand, but a machine nonetheless…Do forgive me if I come across as a vulgar materialist, but so far the only ones I’ve seen performing miracles and saving lives have been doctors and nurses. God has never once put in an appearance, not even to stitch up an eyebrow.'”

It took me a while to figure out the narrative voice, which alternately follows Halkidis and the landlord of the destroyed house, Simeon Piertzovanis, but there are also sections in italic, which are either memories or thoughts of Sonia from her coma. Almost the first thing we learn is that both Halkidis and Piertzovanis are former lovers of Sonia, which means that they both distrust one another but also form an uneasy alliance in their search for truth and justice.

Piertzovanis was an interesting character, a lawyer, gambler and alcoholic who has inherited enough money to not really need to work, he is somehow still largely likeable. And there was a good cast of secondary characters, from a girl Piertzovanis picked up the night of the fire and who has stuck around, to Halkidis’ small team of trusted police, to the various shady types involved to varying degrees in a crime that is somehow political, or at least large enough organisations are involved for solving it to get political.

“I dropped Piertzovanis off at the statue of Kolokotronis, waited for him to take a piss on it and then lurch across Stadiou, his arm raised to deflect the oncoming traffic; drivers were drowning him in hoots, obscene gestures and abuse, but they spared his life.”

So the people and their relationships kept me interested, plus the writing was good, so why didn’t this work for me? I think where it fell down was the crime/detective/thriller part. I’m not sure which of those three it was aiming to be because I didn’t think it worked as any of them. The solution to the crime was too convoluted, with no clues for the reader to follow. But I also never felt, for all of Halkidis’ antics, that he was ever in any danger, so it didn’t work as a thriller either.

Really, this is all about the detective not the detection. And the personal angle definitely added a certain something. Reading what I’ve written it sounds like I’m bothered because I can’t categorise the book and it surprises me that I should feel that way. Perhaps it’s even that the writing was lyrical enough that it slowed me down – I wanted to pay attention to the words, not fly through them. But whatever the reason, I wasn’t gripped, and that feels like a flaw.

First published in Greece by Kastaniotis Editions in 2007.
This translation published 2011 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus.

Source: This was a review copy passed on to me by fellow blogger Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

The silence, the astonishing silence

Mrs De Winter book cover

Mrs de Winter
by Susan Hill

I had no idea this book existed – a sequel to one of my favourite classics by a current author I admire – until I spotted it on a shelf in the holiday home. At which I of course ignored the five books I had brought with me on holiday and read this instead. Or as well as some of them. There’s a lot of books in that holiday home. I could probably have packed fewer books.

So if you couldn’t tell from the title, this is a sequel to Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s best-loved, and probably best, work. I’ll try to review this without spoiling that storyline but I’m not sure this novel would make sense without reading the Du Maurier book first anyway.

Hill picks up the story 10 years after Rebecca. Maxim de Winter and his wife are still in self-imposed exile, living in a hotel in an unnamed location in Europe, existing as peacefully and dully as they can. But they are forced to make a trip to England, to Cornwall, and it all comes flooding back, all that they have tried to forget. Mrs de Winter is still haunted by the ghost of Rebecca and convinces herself that someone out there has survived who wants her to remember, to suffer. Is she going mad or is there really something to be feared in the England she loves and longs to return to more permanently?

“We were here, home, back at last and my heart was full. I felt released, new born, desperate with a sort of sickness at the sight of the autumn fields, the trees and hedgerows, the sky and the sunlight, even the black flocks of swirling, flapping crows. I was guilty and ashamed, as if I were betraying Maxim and my loyalty to him as his wife, so that then, in a small pathetic gesture that only I could understand I deliberately turned my head away from the window and refused to look at what I saw and loved.”

The story is, like Rebecca, narrated by the second Mrs de Winter and I think Hill has got the voice spot on. I think that because I found her both sympathetic and deeply frustrating, just like I did with Du Maurier. (Possibly because I recognise a lot of myself, or at least some of my worse qualities, in her – the silly fantasies and fear of what people might think of me.) As in the original, there are many painful moments that might have been avoided if she would have just spoken honestly with her husband. She convinces herself that she is shielding Maxim from pain, but of course all secrets will be revealed in the end.

Hill is known for her ghost stories, so was a great choice to capture the tone of Rebecca and give it a believable extension, with some returning cast and some new characters. Maxim is still a snob and his wife is still a self-conscious mouse. But they have changed in these 10 years. Maxim has become, to an extent, reliant on his wife, while she has become stronger, at least insofar as she knows what she wants now. Whether she has the strength to make it happen is another matter entirely.

“That was the moment I saw the eagle. It is something I shall never forget, the blue sky and the silence, the astonishing silence, and then, out of nowhere, that magnificent, soaring bird, high over the crag…But it was wrong, it was spoilt, even this very rare and yet very simple joy had been tainted.”

If I were to find fault with this book it would be that I would have wished for Mrs de Winter to have grown stronger still in the intervening years, less afraid of speaking her mind; in other words to have learned her lesson. But while that would be the perfect happy ending, it wouldn’t have made for a very good sequel. This novel relies on all that positive character-building falling apart far too easily. As with Rebecca, it is largely the narrator’s weakness and self-doubt that allow the horrors to become real. Let’s face it, a stronger woman would have fired Mrs Danvers and destroyed all Rebecca’s belongings pretty early on. But just as Du Maurier convinced us that that wasn’t the second wife Maxim wanted, Hill convinces us that Mrs de Winter still has her reasons for feeling nervous, for keeping secrets.

“We were far apart, I thought suddenly, and yet I did not understand why or how it had happened. We had come through our trials into calm seas, and been as close as it is possible for two people to be. Now it had gone, that completeness, and I wondered if marriage was always like this, constantly moving and changing, bearing one this way and that, together and then apart, almost at random, as if we were floating in it, as in a sea.”

Hill really has done an excellent job of capturing that voice, of making this feel like the sequel Du Maurier would have written, so why was I not bowled over by it? I think perhaps I love the original too much to have all my dreams for what happened next shattered by this brilliantly rendered answer to every question. Of course it wasn’t all light and happiness after the curtains were drawn, Du Maurier made that pretty clear from page one of Rebecca. But until I read this I could dream that a few years later it would all be however I wanted it to be.

Was it a mistake to read this? I hope not. I thoroughly enjoyed being back in that world, reading a love letter to England and also a subtle attack on the stiffness of “society”. I enjoyed the prickling at the back of my neck during the haunting scenes, the growing sense of foreboding and the relief of the moments of happiness in-between. I just have to try to keep this as one possibility of what happened next and still allow myself to dream what I will the next time I re-read Rebecca.

Published in 1993 by Sinclair-Stevenson.

Source: Borrowed from holiday home library.

Holiday in pictures

I have been meaning to blog about our very lovely holiday in Cornwall for a week now, but getting back to real life has been super busy. So here are a few nuggets and some photos. Hope you’re all enjoying lovely weather wherever you are.

The colours of sea and sky were impressive. The British seaside rarely looks this…tropical.
Holiday seas

Typically, I had black and white film in my camera, but I got some nice shots with it.
Throwing shapes

We finally made it to the Eden Project, which is brilliant.
Bright flower Untitled

Untitled

And we generally chilled out with good friends and a great location.
Oh yeah

Astonishingly I didn’t entirely melt in the heat and I managed to read four books in a week! Which totally justifies my packing five books, even if one of the books I read was borrowed from the holiday home, right?

If you want to see more of my holiday photos, they are in a set on Flickr.

Happy July, folks.

The extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days

The Wine of Solitude

The Wine of Solitude
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from French by Sandra Smith

Since reading Suite Française when it was discovered and released I have been eager to read more of Némirovsky’s early novels. This is my second and so far they have failed to come close to the brilliance of her final, inspirational work. Not that this is by any means a bad book, but I suppose I had been expecting something more.

I suspect some of Némirovsky’s own life fed into this novel. It follows a family with a Jewish father who move from Ukraine to Russia to Finland to Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, so the background is the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the stock market rise and fall. Which is a turbulent, exciting and occasionally terrifying background for what is at heart the coming of age of a young woman.

“The smell of cigars and brandy wafted through the house until morning, slipping beneath her door and insinuating itself into her dreams. A faraway rumbling shook the paving stones: artillery detachments were passing by in the street.”

But it’s not that simple. Hélène dearly loves her father but he has no time for her between his gambling and business affairs – everything is about making money for Boris Karol. And Hélène’s mother should never really have become a mother at all, as she just wants to party, have affairs with young men and buy expensive clothes and jewels. Hélène harbours quite deep hatred of her mother, which becomes more bitter as she gets older.

“When she was ten years old she began to find a melancholy charm in the solitude of these Sundays. She liked the extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days, which were like faint little suns in a different universe where time flowed at a slower pace.”

There is a lot of negative emotion in this book, as if Némirovsky is pressing home the point that money does not equal happiness. In fact, the brief interludes of happiness for Hélène are determinedly simple pleasures – going for afternoon walks with her French governess, sledging in snow, childhood summers in Paris playing with children who don’t judge her for being different, for having fashionable clothes and speaking better French than Russian. But mostly her early life is unhappy. Not terrible or desperate, but unhappy. And part of her journey to adulthood is learning to find and enjoy those simple pleasures, and making the decision whether to be cold and strong like her mother or passionate but breakable like her father.

“A storm was brewing over Paris; the sky was covered in copper-coloured wisps of cloud that slowly moved closer together to form a blanket of pink mist that parted every so often to reveal a dazzling ray of light.”

There is some beautiful writing here, especially in the descriptions of places, but I found the dialogue and descriptions of emotions a little simplistic or false-sounding. There would be pages of Hélène analysing herself in a manner both too detached and knowing but also naively that for me broke the spell.

“No, I won’t read. All those books make me anxious and unhappy. I have to be happy; I have to like other people…Tonight, I’ll cut out pictures, I’ll draw—I’m happy; I want to be a happy little girl.”

Not that it wasn’t worth reading. And I certainly think there is more to this book than the cover art lets on (a terrible cliché of the elegant young woman in Paris, which doesn’t come close to expressing the darkness that this book contains). It just suffers from my having read what was probably Némirovsky’s best before I read the rest.

First published as Le vin de solitude by Editions Albin Michel in 1935.

This translation published 2011 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: This was a present from my Dad for Christmas 2012.

It is far safer to be feared than loved

Il Principe

The Prince
by Niccolò Machiavelli
translated from Tuscan Italian by N H Thompson

I find military history tedious so this wasn’t the most fun read for me but it’s a classic and it’s only 99 pages so I figured I’d give it a go.

The premise is that Machiavelli wrote this as a textbook for a member of the powerful Medici family and indeed it is formally dedicated to one of them, but it’s unknown if it was ever read by any Medici or even if that was the true intention.

The book is split into short chapters, each of which is a self-contained essay. The first half of them look at types of prince and types of situation whereby a prince might take over a new military history. The second half looks at the qualities a prince should have and the ways he should behave. There’s extensive use of historical examples, many from Italy but also from all over Europe and occasionally further afield.

To be honest, for all the negative reputation of Machiavelli, this is in general sensible or at least realistic-sounding advice. It is sometimes ruthless but not as much as I had expected at all.

“He who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

“The ruler is not truly wise who cannot discern evils before they develop themselves, and this is a faculty given to few.”

“As long as neither their property nor their honour is touched, the mass of mankind live contentedly, and the Prince has only to cope with the ambition of a few.”

Of course, there is an awful lot of focus on war, which I didn’t like too much and objected to morally. Really much of the first half was a struggle against boredom.

“War is the sole art looked for in one who rules…when Princes devote themselves rather to pleasure than to arms, they lose their dominions.”

However, to make up for the objectionable war focus and dull military history there were moments of fascinating philosophical language and that ratio really flipped in the second half, with a lot more commentary on human nature. I especially liked the reference to Chiron the Centaur (a character I learned about in Song of Achilles) as the perfect instructor to teach princes how to use both the natures of man and beast.

“The manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential, therefore, for a Prince…to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not use his goodness as necessity requires.”

The most famous chapter in the book is “Of cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared”. But the answer given to that choice is not as clearcut as I often see quoted. As with most chapters, there is the ideal answer and the likely compromise. A prince “should desire to be counted merciful and not cruel” but should accept the reputation of cruelty “where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient”. And the famous line in this translation reads “it is far safer to be feared than loved”, which is not quite the same as saying it’s better. Indeed, Machiavelli goes on to caution that to inspire fear should not equal inspiring hate. In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to evading contempt and hatred.

There’s also an interesting discussion of assassination that might easily have referred to suicide bombers in another time:

“Let it be noted that deaths like this, which are the result of a deliberate and fixed resolve, cannot be escaped by Princes, since anyone who disregards his own life can effect them. A Prince, however, needs the less to fear them as they are seldom attempted.”

Apparently, since Machiavelli turned out later in life to be a liberal forward-thinker, many have argued over the centuries since the publication of The Prince that it’s a satire and was never intended to be taken seriously. Again, I’m not sure if it’s the translation but I didn’t detect any irony at all.

I’m glad I’ve read it and I can see how you could write many more words analysing the text than the original contains, but I am in no great hurry to read more old political philosophy. Especially not if military strategy is a common theme.

First privately distributed in 1513 under the Latin title De Principatibus (About Principalities).
First published by Antonio Blado d’Asola in 1532 as Il Principe.
This translation first published by P F Collier and Son in 1910.

Source: I honestly don’t remember. It’s a US edition so maybe one of my holidays over that side of the pond?

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

This, which seems like time, must be instantaneous

The Victorian Chaise-longue
by Marghanita Laski

Almost exactly a year ago I went on what I hope will be the first of many trips to Persephone Books in London and, as well as being bought a book by my lovely friend H, I bought this book for myself on the back of several glowing reviews I had read around the internets. I can now add to all the glowing praise with some of my own!

I love end papers

This novella could well be described as sci-fi horror, but it’s both easier to read and more deeply soul-searching than that implies. It explores, through a deceptively simple story, questions about life, death, love, illness, pain, secrets and probably other things that I missed. (Simon of Savidge Reads wrote a fascinating review of this book that pointed out how it depicts the role of women in society.)

Melanie is a young, bubbly wife and mother recovering from a serious bout of TB in the 1950s. After being confined to her bed for eight months, she is thrilled when the doctor says she can be moved to another room, where she is lain on the Victorian chaise-longue, which she bought on a whim while pregnant but has never before been able to use. When she falls asleep in the afternoon, she wakes up in what appears to be not only another house but another time, almost a century earlier, in the body of someone called Milly, the only thing in common being the Victorian chaise-longue, or so she thinks at first.

“It must have been the chaise-longue, argued Melanie. There is no other link; something to do with Milly and the chaise-longue that was so powerful, that even I in the present, just by lying on it, couldn’t help but feel it…This, which seems like time, must be instantaneous, without duration or reality. But I seem real…”

I liked the way Laski dealt with time travel, answering some of the key questions that always come up with her own (possibly unique?) solutions. For instance Melanie can’t say anything out loud that doesn’t fit with the time and place – there’s a disconnect between what she intends to say and what comes out. But Laski also leaves Melanie to puzzle over some of the other time-travel issues, such as how the timeline works: has all this happened before? is this an alternative past? what is time doing in her present? She rejects outright the idea that this is a previous incarnation of herself, which leaves her with the creepy knowledge that if this is real, all the people she is interacting with, including Milly, are long dead in her own present.

“This body I am in, it must have rotted filthily, this pillowcase must be a tatter of rag, the coverlet corrupt with moth, crisp and sticky with matted moths’ eggs, falling away into dirty crumbling scraps. It’s all dead and rotten…She shuddered, and knew she was shuddering in a body long ago dead. Her flesh crawled away and it was flesh that had turned green and liquescent and at last become damp dust.”

I thought Melanie was a great character, full of life and realistic frustration that just as she is recovering from her near-death and is ready to enjoy her husband and child, she is spirited away to some puzzling situation in someone else’s past. She is at times a little too stiff and snooty, but then that’s a key part of the story – Melanie believes herself above these people she finds herself surrounded by, and that’s one of the obstacles she has to overcome to understand what’s going on.

It works brilliantly as a horror story because at first you think the only question is when will she get back to her own present, but then you gradually realise that the details of Milly’s situation mean there are other dangers here. It’s genuinely scary, which is not something I say often!

Marghanita Laski was a fairly well known member of the British literati who was nearly forgotten all too quickly, until Persephone Books republished this. They have subsequently picked out three more of Laski’s books for reissue. I am so grateful that there are outfits like Persephone out there preserving great literature for the future.

First published by the Cresset Press in 1953.
This edition published by Persephone Books in 1999.