Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 - Books that visit UK, Romania, France, Ukraine, Italy, Belgium, Albania & Bosnia



It's hard to choose among many books I've read in 2016 I'd like to write about, but here's just a few of my favourites, most, but not all, published this year.

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Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows (published 2016). Sometimes the way you come across books are stories in themselves. When I saw the cover of this one I felt immediately drawn to it. Font, colours and design are very important to me. I don't believe in the old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' or rather I'd change it to 'go by your feelings when it comes to a book cover.' I hardly ever buy full-price new books (I borrow from the library, rummage in charity shops and am given books to review) but the cover and the subject matter were making a strong case to undermine my resistance. Then one day I came across a copy in a charity shop and snapped it up. It takes place at Bletchley Park during WWII and it is truly a nail-bitingly tense thriller. But more than that, for its descriptions of states of mind are so perceptive. Along with the main protagonist, Honey Deschamps, you flip from one way of seeing and assessing what is going on (particularly when it comes to Felix), to its opposite. It keeps you doubting and questioning throughout and the ending was quite unexpected, in a way I thoroughly approved of, as it seemed to be leading to a more conventional outcome.




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Alison Anderson's The Summer Guest (published 2016)
While The Amber Shadows played out like a monochrome film, in winter penumbra both literal and psychological, Alison Anderson's novel is full of colour, warmth and summer sunlight. The sensuous atmosphere seduces you into sharing the reveries and descriptions written in the journal of an invalid young woman who meets Chekov and his family. The natural world shimmers in heat, and in the developing friendship between them, which might hide a literary secret. Or might be the product of someone's imagination. Or even fiction.  As well as Chekov's nineteenth century Russia, the novel takes place in present day France and London, with a visit to Ukraine. I particularly liked the literary theme, the lyricism, and the quest, which involves not just Chekov but the very nature of what fiction is. Subtle and entrancing writing.




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Ioana Pârvulescu's Life Begins on Friday (2016) is a delightful novel set at the end of the 19th century, in Bucharest. While there is a mysterious stranger who turns up wearing strange clothes and with odd manners, all the characters are memorable, and most of them are warm-hearted. The way of life, particularly in the newspaper office, evokes nostalgia for a kinder less stressful era where people have time to talk to and care for each other. (full review can be read here).

 
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Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography Slipstream is fascinating. It's an account of a life in a particular time and place, taking in WWII and post-war London. It depicts her struggle for recognition as a person and a writer and has an endearing honesty and an inspiring insight, through her experience, into others' characters but mostly, into herself. She has an admirable capacity of being non-judgemental about others and herself, though she depicts without drama what she sees as her own flaws, weaknesses and repeating patterns of relationships that bring initial intense euphoria followed by disappointment and unhappiness. It's like being given a guest ticket to the green room of London's literati, actors, artists, editors and publishers. Stories and character sketches of those she knew, worked with and/or loved, Cecil Day Lewis, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Romain Gary and Kingsley Amis, just to name a few.


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Joseph Brodsky's Watermark is described as 'part confessional, part meditation on water and stone, past and present'. This is the kind of writing that poets often do so well, for they have insight and perception and a wondrous capacity for description. But  Watermark also tells us about the author himself, his relationship in particular with Venice, and his associations with water and time, his responses to art, architecture,  weather, Greek myths, light etc. He writes  “This is the winter light at its purest …..And the city lingers in it, savouring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.”


Other great books I've read and written about this year, with links to full reviews. 

Volker Weidermann's Summer Before the Dark - in 1936 several émigré writers such as Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Irmgard Keun met up in Ostend. It reads like a novel, lyrical and tender. I think it is a novel, a true novel. (2016)

Biography of Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu (2016)

Whatever the Sea - a brilliant anthology of poetry (2016)

Catherine Czerkawska's The Jewel - novel based on the lives of Robert Burns and his wife, Jean Armour (2016)

Faruk Šehić- Quiet Flows the Una
A poetic meditation on the river Una in Bosnia, this book features in other 'best of 2016' lists and is gathering awards. (2016)

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Last Summer Days in France


This year has seen so many travels and events, I've got way behind in posting them all. This is the last part of the French trip, from June this year. Earlier posts visited Alet-les-Bains
Rennes-le-Chateau, Saint Polycarpe & the Monastery of Cantauque, Monsegur, and Puilaurens and Mirepoix. Which took us back up to Picardie where I left my friends at Amiens train station where, because of the strikes, I had to wait several hours. But that's travel. Often a lot of waiting around. In October, I waited for hours in Newark airport, trying to get on a flight to Chicago. I got the last seat on the last flight out in the evening. You feel so very thankful when you do finally get on. 
It was one of those double decker trains to Rouen and I sat on the top deck, as always. I was so glad to see P* who picked me up at the train station. For some reason it is impossible to pull up in a car in front of the station, but P* did anyway, blocking the traffic behind, and then he drove through the town in inimitable fashion, flinging arms and imprecations to the gods, with one or two insults to other drivers, for good measure.


The picturesque old town of Rouen is on the right bank of the Seine, full of gorgeous timber fronted houses. 





But many shops are announcing that they're closing down. A clothes shop, one selling bandes dessinées. Soldes, réductions, plastered across the shop fronts. Tout doit disparaître. Déstockage massif.

Crossing the river, the wide Seine, there's a luxury cruise ship, the Botticelli from Strasbourg, tethered at the side.



And a working boat, with its stained metal cover and peeling red paint at one end, moves slowly under the pont Jeanne d'Arc. The Seine has half covered one of the quais, but the headline in the local paper says plus de peur que du mal. More fear of flooding here, than any actual problems.



Market at Saint Sever


 On la rive gauche you come to the colourful quarter of Saint Sever. In front of the church there's an open area, then two streets of small shops selling fruit and vegetables, shoes and clothes – bright, colourful flowing dresses and scarves, printed cotton trousers, in swirling paisley patterns. There are benches under shady trees, where old men sit and watch the passing people, and a couple of corner cafés where people sit outside drinking beers or coffees in the thick sunlight of late afternoon. To one side of the church is the shopping centre, also called Saint Sever, its modern glass front set back at a distance from the church, so that sunlight splashes the forecourt.
 

Outside the grocer's shop, fruit and vegetables are piled on small carts. Oranges in one, melons in another, nectarines in a third. The carts have big wheels, and are painted red. 

 

This is Rouen's quarter of colour. A dark-skinned young man stops me and says something about a sports centre, gesturing to a building behind him, which looks empty. But I say no thanks. Vous ne vous intéressez pas au sport? Non, I say.

This area has a feeling of life spilling out into the streets, and parading itself there. Boundaries between commerce, coffee and conversation, between pavement and shop, between sunlight, laughter and the dreamy silence of people sitting or strolling past, between work and leisure, between day and evening, are all blurred.


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Departure
Before getting on the bus at the quai du havre in Rouen (this bus will take me to Paris where I will change to get another one to London) there's a couple of women waiting, with several bags. But you're only allowed one per person, says the driver. One of the women says – that person doesn't have a bag, that one too – no bag. My extra bags can be theirs. Les choses ne s'arrangent pas comme ça says the driver in the tone of voice that corresponds to a shrug-level, a little weary, with an 'end of conversation' movement, as he turns back to the bus.

The woman turns to the other, luggage-less passengers, to enlist their help. They agree to adopt a piece of her luggage. The driver says vous pensez qu'on peut faire ça à l’aéroport? (clearly the answer is no.) He said they'd have to pay a supplement. He's then on the phone. But when the door is opened and people put their cases into the luggage compartment, the women put in all their cases, newly reassigned to different passengers.
The driver's on the phone again, comes and goes, glances at people's tickets or phones, nods, allez-y he says to me and I'm relieved for I have 2 bags! He walks off again, talks into the phone, then comes back when it suits him. He is after all a French worker, employee maybe but still sovereign in his own territory, his own sphere of influence, management and expertise.

Every arrival of every bus or train, every time I succeed in getting on a vehicle is like an event of the greatest good fortune. I really have found the right place, right bus, and despite having two bags they will still let me board. So many reasons for thankfulness, they accumulate, follow each other, like waves on a beach, a succession of delicacies, over and over one after another, a folding of days, piled like linen in skies of pale blue. Linen days in petal-flecked skies.
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There are these moments in travel when time's fabric eases just a little and we're no longer a beached island of self looking out on a world – whether distant or intimate, remote or thick and warm, we're always looking it seems, for drawbridges over the gaps between fireside and horses' hoof-prints in the dust, between candle light and the sound of metal horse shoes hitting stone.






Moments when there is only this, and it's not so much missing the rest, but the rest has been loved into silence, 'the rest' has dropped to its knees, surrendered its solitude, and become one with the only. Don't stand outside of it. 'The rest' has walked in and been welcomed. In the hazy warm sunshine, in the bus park at Porte Maillot, Paris, eating quiche aux épinards et saumon, there it is, when time loosens its laces forgets its earth-shaking agendas, and you – grateful for this – forget who you are. What bliss to lose the sensation of self, the Separator, and return to the source and the oneness – like the sun, like the ocean.