I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw

Optician of LampedusaThe Optician of Lampedusa
by Emma Jane Kirby

This book, like The Gurugu Pledge falls somewhere between journalism and novel – a true story retold in novel form.

Lampedusa is an Italian island that is closer to Africa than Europe. Though refugees crossing the Mediterranean rarely aim intentionally for Lampedusa, it has over the last decade become a common site for boats gone astray. A few years ago Lampedusa’s optician Carmine Menna was taking a pleasant boat trip with his wife and friends when they heard the screams of hundreds of drowning men and women. He was reluctant to speak to reporters, but BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby talked him into this method of telling his story.

“I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to…You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching…Birds. Just birds. We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.”

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Leaving because it is no longer possible to stay

We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo

This was my favourite of the six books I read over Easter weekend on the theme of refugees and migration. Perhaps it’s because it’s written from the perspective of a young girl. I know child narrators are difficult to do well, but when they are, I really respond to them.

Darling is 10 years old and lives in a shanty town called Paradise in Zimbabwe (though the country is never named, it’s clear where it is). She spends her days with her friends and lives with her mother and Mother of Bones.

At first it seems innocent, though the poverty is clearly extreme. Hints are dropped, details revealed of how far from paradise this is. Darling and her friends have their ways of dealing with unfairness and poverty and violence, but something worse is always just round the corner.

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Whichever history the whites chose for you

The Gurugu PledgeThe Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated by Jethro Soutar

This is the first of three books I read last weekend that create fiction from real-life accounts. It hadn’t even occurred to me before that was a genre!

On the Gurugu mountain in Morocco next to the border with the small Spanish enclave of Melilla, people from all over Africa hide in caves and tents in a makeshift camp, waiting to make their attempt on the border wall that could get them to European soil. To pass the time, the people on Gurugu mountain tell stories about where they have come from and play football (which also keeps them warm on this northerly point of the continent).

“There are some five hundred of us, black Africans all, and we just want to live, you know? We just want to live, but living is a serious business in Africa, for it’s often very hard and lots of people barely manage it…we need to eat. Do you understand me, Sir? Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you.”

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The time from the other room beats waves

The PassportThe Passport
by Herta Müller
translated from German by Martin Chalmers

I bought this book in Berlin a couple of years ago, attracted by the cover line “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. And the owl on the cover, if I’m being honest. I had no idea what the book was about, when it was written or who Müller was.

Having read the book, I am surprised to discover that it’s set in Romania, not Germany, and it’s about events that happened in my lifetime, under a dictator I had heard of but did not know the full extent of his awfulness. (The Berlin connection is that Müller fled from Romania to Berlin and she has lived there since 1987.)

This is the story of a village in a minority German-speaking corner of Romania in the 1980s. Ceaușescu’s regime is increasingly oppressive, and this minority in particular are being killed – or to call it by its true name, ethnically cleansed. Most people in the village are trying to get out, and they will all do whatever it takes to get that precious passport. The main character, Windisch, a miller, is bribing the mayor with sacks of flour, but he knows what all the officials really want and he is trying to resist. He talks unkindly of how his fellow villagers managed to obtain their passports, but it is inevitable that he will have to follow in their footsteps.

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Reading round-up March 2018

photo of The Gurugu Pledge and a chocolate egg

I am currently halfway through my Easter read-a-thon and bang on schedule: I’ve finished three of the six books I’m hoping to read before the end of Monday. But I am also full of cold and feeling a little rubbish, so the Netflix and Youtube breaks have been getting longer…

Much like this bank holiday weekend, March as a whole has been a mixed bag. It snowed twice, which was pretty but the one time we went out in it further than the local park I twisted my ankle. And that meant I didn’t run for almost a whole month, which makes me worry a little bit about that pesky 10k race in six weeks’ time.

On the plus side we did an awesome gyoza cooking class arranged by a local cafe called Eatchu last weekend and now our freezer is full of tofu, mushroom and spinach dumplings. Surprisingly it seems to be the cooking them part that is defeating us so far but that might be because they require a 100% non-stick pan, not ones where not only the non-stick but all the materials appear to be peeling off in places. I think we need new frying pans.

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Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find

The GroupThe Group
by Mary McCarthy

This is often mentioned as a feminist classic alongside the likes of The Awakening and Herland, so it should have been right up my street. The thing is, the other word thrown around about this book is “satirical”, which I have no problem with in theory, but in practice I have often taken a dislike to satirical books (for every Scoop there’s also an Emma). Humour is a tricky thing.

This is the story of a group of eight women, friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933, and follows the next few years of their lives. Each chapter centres around a different member of “the group”, some with more crossover between the friends than others. It opens at the wedding of Kay and Harald one week after graduation. Kay is the first of the group to get married, though not the only one to have a fiancé before finishing college. The others are fascinated by her low-rent, friends-not-family wedding and its indication of her bohemian life to come (Harald is a playwright).

“To Elinor, this wedding was torture. Everything was so jaggedly ill-at-ease…Intelligent and morbidly sensitive, she was inwardly screaming with pity for the principals and vicarious mortification. Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find for the antiphonal bird twitter of ‘Terribly nice’ and ‘Isn’t this exciting?’ that had risen to greet the couple in lieu of a wedding march. Elinor was always firmly convinced of other people’s hypocrisy since she could not believe that they noticed less than she did.”

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Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

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I prefer to think that women are human

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L SayersAre Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
by Dorothy L Sayers

I thought this would be an appropriate review to publish on International Women’s Day. As the title suggests, this tiny volume is a pair of pieces by Sayers on women’s rights – an address given to a women’s society in 1938, and an essay first published in 1947.

I was a little frustrated by Sayers dismissing feminists as too extreme while arguing the case for women being individuals. But in general she finds smart, astute ways to explain how men, and society in general, treat men as human individuals and women as identical members of a stereotype.

“Are women really not human, that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep? I think that people should be allowed to drink as much wine and beer as they can afford and is good for them; Lady Astor thinks nobody should be allowed to drink anything of the sort. Where is the “woman’s point of view”? Or is one or the other of us unsexed? If the unsexed one is myself, then I am unsexed in very good company. But I prefer to think that women are human and differ in opinion like other human beings.

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She wonders how much the pain could increase

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda
by Meike Ziervogel

This novella follows the final days of Magda Goebbels. Knowing the bare bones of her story, I knew where this book would go, and expected something powerful. It’s a good book, but I didn’t experience the big reaction I thought I would.

Magda Goebbels was the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and herself a prominent Party member. The couple had six children and were both very close to Hitler. In April 1945 they moved, with their children, to Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.

Ziervogel has fictionalized the facts a little, and fleshed out the tale of Magda’s last days by adding Magda’s childhood and first marriage. Which is a lot to fit into a small space, but does give some context and humanity to this woman who is widely considered a little (or a lot) less than human.

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