More fool me? …

tbr-dare-2014It’s April 1 – and the end of the TBR dare, so time for an update.

If you consider only the books I’ve reviewed for this blog, I only cheated fully once and partially twice!

The full cheat was the pair of Quick Reads titles I squeezed in on convenient train journeys.
The partial cheats were: The Helios Disaster by Linda Bostrum Knausgard – which I had originally planned to review for Shiny New Books, but found too weird and my thoughts too bitty to write a coherent full-length piece for Shiny, and Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell – another Shiny read which I disliked so much I couldn’t finish it!

Including those above, I have read 34 books so far this year, of which 16 were on my TBR before Jan 1st and 14 are Shiny Reviews for issues 4 in January and issue 5 coming next week and were excluded from the TBR Dare accordingly.  I hope that James, TBR Dare host, will forgive me for my partial participation this year. As ever, my intentions were good – but I am fooling myself if I didn’t realise I had so many reviews to read/write for Shiny!

Needless to say, I have read some cracking books for Issue 5 of Shiny including several wonderful debuts, a couple of non-fiction titles, a much-loved re-read and that new novel by ‘Ish’…

Back to normal soon.

 

A Musical Interlude

McBusted’s Most Excellent Adventure

Last night I took my daughter (and one of her bezzies) to her first pop concert – McBusted at what was the N.I.A. in Birmingham (now the Barclaycard Arena!). It was my first music night for about 15 years too and this morning my ears are still a bit affected. Our seats were in the middle of the arena floor – and I did wonder whether we’d be able to see anything once everyone stood up, but once my daughter pointed out that we were actually just 20yds away from the mid-arena mini-stage and thus in an excellent position I was ready to ‘Party on, dude.’ The show was themed on a video game based on teen films Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future. It being McBusted, I already knew most of the songs as they’ve been on the TV a lot – they only have one album together, and played a few of their previous McFly and Busted hits too.

I have to say – it was a most excellent show. Both support bands were good, getting 20 minutes each, then McB played for one and three quarter hours. Very slick and professional – also very fun. These boys are all lovely! One thing you can do now at pop concerts is take photos with impunity (although you’re still not really allowed) – so here’s a flavour of what we saw…

McB montage 1
McB Montage 2
McB Montage3

It was a real thrill to see the DeLorean being lowered down from the roof (middle montage) – and then all six of them climbed out of it (they obvs have an underground passage into the arena middle and pop up inside the car once it is lowered), but it’s an impressive illusion. Then they played about four songs there before returning to the stage.

I’d go and see McBusted again like a shot!  As to which of these lads is my favourite?  I have a very soft spot for Tom, love Dougie’s grin, James’ dishevelledness, Harry’s pecs, Matt’s hair and Danny is growing on me…

The only down-side to the NIA though is that being in the middle of Birmingham, with the end of the concert moreorless coinciding with chucking out time and roadworks in the city – it took forever to get out of the car-park and then the satnav led us the scenic route back to the motorway!  Didn’t get home to bed until 1.30am – aren’t I a dirty stop-out!  I shall leave you with a video for ‘Air Guitar’.

 

A Dance to the Music of Time 3: The Acceptance World

Dancing Powell

The Acceptance World

Dance 3 Acceptance World
We come to the third volume in Anthony Powell’s series – the last of the ‘Spring’ books. (If you’d like to catch up with volumes one and two, click accordingly.)

The Acceptance World begins with Nick Jenkins meeting his Uncle Giles at a hotel for tea. There he is introduced to Mrs Erdleigh who tells their fortunes, saying to Nick that she’ll meet him again in a year – strange company for his Uncle Giles!

At work, Jenkins is publishing a book on a noted painter of political portraits and businessmen and has approached St.John Clarke (apparently based upon John Galsworthy) to write the introduction. One of his old college contemporaries had been Clarke’s secretary, but Jenkins finds he has been replaced by on Quiggin – who has, it appears, steered Clarke in a different political direction.  Jenkins discusses Clarke’s situation being under the thumb of his new secretary with his friend Barnby:

‘I don’t think St.John Clark is interested in either sex,’ said Barnby. ‘He fell in love with himself at first sight and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful.’

Some time later, Jenkins meets his old school-friend Peter Templer again and is invited to join them for a weekend.

That we had ceased to meet fairly regularly was due no doubt to some extent to Templer’s chronic inability – as our housemaster Le Bas would have said – to ‘keep up’ a friendship. He moved entirely within the orbit of events of the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. If we happened to run across each other, we arranged to do something together; not otherwise.

The particular excitement of this reuniting for Jenkins is that he finds out that Jean, Peter’s sister, appears to be separated from her husband DuPort. Jenkins had had a youthful passion for Jean, and this is reignited and they rekindle their affair.  In between all this there is a lot of complicated discussion about who’s seeing whom, who’s divorced whom and such shenanigans!

Jenkins is reunited with his old schoolfriends at his old housemaster’s dinner for old boys at the Ritz. Stringham is drunk and Widmerpool makes a very long and involved and very boring speech – during which Le Bas has a stroke! I shouldn’t cheer at other people’s misfortunes, but it was a great penultimate scene to bring Widmerpool back into play. He had been mentioned earlier, but hadn’t appeared until then.  It is Widmerpool who is moving from industry into the city and joining the ‘Acceptance World’.  I can hear you asking what that is – here is how Templer describes it to Nick:

‘If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.’

Any clearer?  I assume they refer to the futures and/or bond markets…

There are other forms of acceptance at work in this novel too. Nick, who does have to work for a living, is becoming accepted in all the walks of society in which he moves. He seems more mature than most of his friends, and while not immune to love affairs, is not the type to swap partners that way most of the others seem to do with monotonous regularity.  For his capricious upper class  friends, marriage and divorce don’t seem to mean a lot.  Nick, as Widmerpool has too, has resisted marriage – how long can they last as bachelors?  What will happen to Peter and Jean?

Widmerpool’s appearance aside, volume three was a lot more serious than the first two, and I missed the comedy he brings with him. I know I have a Widmerpool-fest to come in the next novel – the first of the ‘Summer’ books.  I’m looking forward to April’s Powell episode. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03) by Anthony Powell (1955), approx 224 pages.

Two National Treasures at the Oxford Literary Festival

Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in Conversation

history_boys_nicholas_hytner_alan_bennett_1

Earlier this evening I went into Oxford for my only visit to the Oxford Literary Festival this year. It was a sell-out event at the Sheldonian – with two national treasures who have been collaborating for decades in conversation. We were all crammed into the Sheldonian. I’d bought a lower gallery ticket, and the ushers were trying to fill the gallery up from the furthest corners. Not wishing to only see the back of their heads, I decided to be awkward and claimed a decent seat, happily moving to let people past – I’d got there early enough to pick my seat I’d hoped…

Time for the talk, and Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden lead the pair in, Bennett shuffling – he is 80 now. Ovenden then introduced them, and told us that Bennett had gifted his papers to the Bodleian in 2008. Bennett quipped that they were assured of legend status as both had been “a small stepping stone in the rise and rise of James Corden.”

They settled down to chat, and Bennett started off by quizzing Hytner about his time as a chorister aged 12 at Manchester Grammar School and the joy of singing under the direction of Manchester legend John Barbirolli. They then moved on to when they first worked together – on the Wind in the Willows in 1990 at the National Theatre. Bennett had been asked by Richard Eyre, then the NT director, to write a play coming out of Wind in the Willows incorporating Kenneth Grahame’s life, but Bennett found that too tragic and adapted just the book (I saw it twice – loved it). Hytner directed and went on to direct many more family-friendly productions for the NT including their adaptations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and latterly War Horse. Here Bennett interjected that he had been approached to adapt War Horse, but said no, “not a literary work at all.”  He said that there was not enough in War Horse for the playwright to do to it – it’s all in the action and production design and direction.

Moving on to The History Boys – Hytner thought it better on stage than film. They talked about how they collaborated on the drafts of the play. Bennett told a funny story about how he performed one of the scenes at the NT 50th anniversary gala – it was from the French lesson – so all in French – but he got a laugh in one bit where Richard Griffiths who played Hector never did – Griffiths would have loved to get the extra laugh.

Maggie-Smith-in-The-Lady-In-The-Van-531772Then, before questions, they talked about their latest project – the film of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. This is the true story of Alan Bennett himself and Miss Shepherd – who moved into Gloucester Crescent in her van – Bennett invited her to temporarily park her van on his drive – she stayed for fifteen years. Dame Maggie Smith will reprise her role from the stage as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett will be played by Alex Jennings (left). They filmed it in Gloucester Crescent in Bennett’s old house, so a real nostalgia trip for Bennett – and the remaining neighbours who remembered Miss Shepherd. I shall really look forward to seeing this film.

The early evening lecture finished with Ovenden presenting Hytner with the Bodley medal, Bennett already has one. I resisted going down to the book stall, there not being signing on offer (and I’d succumbed to a couple of purchases in Waterstones on my way to the venue earlier!). I could have sat and listened to Bennett all evening – he is just so simultaneously Eeyorish and witty – when he could get a word in edgeways – Hytner tended to be rather expansive, but it was a lovely event.

P.S. I forgot to say that Bennett finished off the conversation by reading a speech from his play A Habit of Art. Kay, the stage manager (as played by Frances de la Tour on stage) speaks the speech which defines ‘The Habit of Art’.  This speech was another collaboration between Hytner and Bennett – originally it had stopped halfway through, but Hytner suggested it needed more.

A man of letters…

Dear Lupin… Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

dear lupinMemoirs told in letters are an endangered species these days. Who still writes letters to their nearest and dearest?  We tend to send a quick e-mail instead, and then we tend not to archive them. Our e-mails tend to be less formal and less revealing. There’s something especially poignant and attractive about reading other people’s letters, getting a little glimpse into their lives.

A huge hit of recent times has been Love Nina, by Nina Stibbe (my review here). Nina’s letters, sent home to her sister when she was nannying in London in the 1980s are witty, youthful and full of enthusiasm – it was a great time to be in London in your early twenties. A couple of years before Nina’s epistles came another bestselling volume of letters …

Roger Mortimer, who died in 1991, was a WWII veteran serving in the Coldstream Guards and after that a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times for nearly thirty years. His son, Charlie was born in 1952 and somewhat surprisingly, he had kept all his father’s letters to him over the years. Those published in Dear Lupin cover around twenty-five years, starting in 1967 when Charlie was at Eton.

Before I go further, I should explain that the title of the book Dear Lupin, comes from George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic novel Diary of a Nobody published in 1892. Lupin is the preferred name of the son of Mr Pooter. Pooter, a clerk in the City, is a Captain Mainwaring type, rather self-important and he doesn’t approve of his son’s social life. One day I must read this book – such is Pooter’s literary fame. Mortimer père comes across as having a very dry sense of humour in allying himself with Mr Pooter and his son with Lupin.

The book begins with a foreword by Charlie telling us about his father, then a dramatis personae – for many mentioned in the letters seem to have at least one nickname. This was useful to refer back to on some occasions. The letters follow, most with a comment by Charlie afterwards explaining some of the circumstances therein. Charlie, as becomes clear, is mainly a fan of the telephone. The letters begin in 1967 as Charlie is shortly to leave Eton without any qualifications at all. A few years later in 1970, his plan is to join the army, but not until he’s had a final fling in Greece. Roger writes with a long list of advice:

5. Try not to look like some filthy student who has renouced personal hygiene completely. The unwashed with long hair are looked upon with great hostility in certain European countries and it would be silly to be stopped at a frontier because you like wearing your hair like a 1923 typist.
6. If you do get into trouble, Interpol will soon find out you have a police record and that could be awkward. …
8. Take a small medicine box and plenty of bromo. You are one of nature’s diarrhoea sufferers.
9. Make sure all your headlights are adapted to the rules of the country you are in. [and so on]

[Charlie comments]
This is a final fling before rather an impetuous decision to join the Coldstream Guards as a squaddie in October. Due to a conviction for possession of marijuana I am not able to join as a potential officer. As the Colonel in Chief remarks to me in an interview, ‘If you were merely an alcoholic we wouldn’t give a damn.’

His spell in the Army doesn’t last long! Soon Charlie is living in Devon and trying out lots of other jobs – paint salesman, farming ‘of sorts’ and being a second-hand car dealer. Roger writes:

Dear Charles,
I suppose that writing a serious letter to you is about as effective as trying to kick a thirty-ton block of concrete in bedroom slippers, but I am a glutton for punishment as far as you are concerned.

Roger really does worry about his aimless and rather feckless son. He is concerned too, that it could all be his fault. Charlie’s mother, Cynthia, nicknamed Nidnod for some reason, is always off hunting and seems to hit the bottle in the evenings a lot – however she is beyond reproach.  Charlie continues to drift along, trying this and that, and Roger keeps him going with generous contributions along with demands to pay the phone bill after the occasions Charlie had stayed with his parents. Roger’s last letter of 1977 is particularly brief …

Dear Little Mr Reliable,
Thanks a million for doing the wood baskets as promised. My word, your employer is going to be a very lucky man!
D

[Charlie] It takes real skill and irony to craft such an effective dressing down in so few words.

To quote more gems from these pages would be to over-egg things. The letters continue into Roger’s retirement and last years, his sense of humour and air of genteel frustration never dimming. Charlie is a commitment-phobe in all senses of the word, gamely going through life from one small crisis to another, being bailed out by his long-suffering Dad who obviously loves him to bits, and Charlie loves him back. Charlie doesn’t really change much over the decades – he’s now in his early 60s, describing himself as a ‘middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired).’

Roger has a unique almost stream of consciousness flow in his letter writing – going from admonishments, to advice, to who has died recently, to his wife’s riding exploits, to gossip about the neighbours, to more advice, to news about the family pets and so on… without stopping to start new paragraphs – just everything butting up to together. This butterfly approach to letter writing, full of these non-sequiturs, could be compared with Charlie’s career!

I loved being in Roger’s company hearing about his unique-sounding family. The good thing is that Charlie’s two sisters, one older, one younger have also kept their letters and two more volumes of epistles from the Mortimer family are now available to read – Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter  and Dearest Jane: My Father’s Life & Letters – I shall be reading them both. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Dear Lupin…: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger & Charlie Mortimer. Constable, 2011, paperback 208 pages.
Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter by Roger & Louise Mortimer. Constable, 2013, paperback 208 pages.
Dearest Jane…: My Father’s Life and Letters by Roger & Jane Mortimer. Constable, 2014, hardback, 432 pages. (pbk in May 2015)

A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård

 

Wandering in Wantage …

If you go SE from Abingdon, you get to Didcot – go SW and you reach Wantage – a town I very rarely visit. It has an historic association with Alfred the Great and his statue graces the market place. After having dropped my daughter off at King Alfred’s School – the starting point for her DoE Practice Expedition this weekend, I headed into town to look around…

P1020366 (1024x554)I’ve wanted to visit Regent Books for ages – which is a huge cave of a second-hand bookshop which also sells furniture upstairs. One of those musty rabbits warrens absolutely crammed full of books (right), it was presided over by a moustachioed old chap and his two younger sidekicks – not traditional booksellers – they are traders in books. But they do know their stock, and what they can sell it for! Having purchased £15 worth of mostly old penguins, I enquired about bringing some of my excess in to sell to them … ‘I’d have to sting you for them,’ said the old chap, ‘Got to make a living.’ Sad but true – I don’t know if I’ll be going back though.

Then, wandering around a bit more – I came across this place in a side-road…

P1020365 (1024x768)

The door said ‘open’ – but it didn’t look like either a bookshop or a library from peering in – so I didn’t go in! When I got home, I googled it and came up with this piece about the place – turns out there is a Betjeman connection (although not surprising as he was local). If I go to Wantage again, I’m going to be brave and go inside.

Have you been to any interesting second-hand bookshops lately?

The return of Clara Vine

A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne

War-of-Flowers-final-front_480x_acf_croppedI am a big fan of the wartime adventures of Anglo-German actress and British spy Clara Vine’s first two outings in Black Roses and The Winter Garden, so I was delighted to get stuck into the third volume of Jane Thynne’s series to see what happened next to Clara. In the first book, Clara had become a model for the Deutsches Modeamt (the Reich fashion bureau) and through that ended up as a confidante of Magda Goebbels and the other Nazi wives. In the second volume she got mixed up in a murder at Himmler’s Bride School for those marrying SS officers and later met the Mitfords and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor.

Where next for Clara, as we are nearing the formal declaration of war between Britain and Germany in 1939? Well, her British handlers have a new mission for her…

She thought of the task they were asking of her now. Getting close to Eva Braun, and in the space of a month? How was she possibly going to manage that? She didn’t even know what Eva Braun looked like. Emmy Goering had once said she looker like the film star Lilian Harvey but stupider, but that wasn’t much to go on. And even if Clara was to meet the girl and manage to talk to her, what were the chances that she would be willing to confide private details about Hitler’s state of mind? Clara would need to employ all her persuasive skills. She had become well versed in asking ingenuous questions under the guise of female curiosity – the paranoid, isolated existences of most Nazi wives meant they tended to open up gratefully to an apparently sympathetic listener – so all she could hope was that Hitler’s girlfriend felt the same.

Before that though, nearing the end of her stay while filming in Paris, Clara has to visit one of Coco Chanel’s soirées, to collect some perfume for Magda Goebbels. It is there that she meets Max Brandt, a cultural attaché at the German Embassy. He will become important later.

Back in Berlin, she delivers the perfume to Magda who is very depressed – her husband, a prolific philanderer wanted to move his current mistress in.

‘Anyway, the ménage à trois was intolerable. I couldn’t stop crying – I even thought of killing myself and the children. I did, honestly. When we accompanied the Führer to Bayreuth in July, I sobbed all the way through Tristan und Isolde.’

Clara will soon meet Eva, who turns out to be girlish, even naive, and a real chatterbox given the opportunity.

‘He’s very stubborn when it comes to taking any interest in my hobbies. Like perfume, for example. … he never comes shopping with me now and you can’t get French perfumes either. But it doesn’t matter because I’ve started making my own.’

I won’t tell any more about the plot except to say that Clara will eventually get to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof near Berchtesgarden, under pressured circumstances – but luckily Adolf isn’t there. He has yet to make a proper appearance in Clara’s life.  Indeed, I rather hope he remains afar in Clara’s next adventures, for yes, there is to be a fourth Clara Vine novel.  Yippee!

As before, Jane Thynne has brought us a wonderful picture of the life of prominent women under the Nazi regime. It was really rather enjoyable to encounter the Nazi wives again. In a side-plot, we find out more about some of the Third Reich’s programmes too through which they tried to control people – in this case the disappearance of a young woman from a KdF (Kraft durch Freude – Strength through Joy) cruise ship; cruises being a reward for being a good Nazi.  The research is impeccable and the novel is full of fascinating detail.

Combined with adventure, spying, glamour and inevitable romance, we have another thrilling story which romps along and definitely left me wanting more.  I asked Jane a whole load of questions about A War of Flowers and the other Clara Vine novels, but you’ll have to wait for the next edition of Shiny New Books on April 7th.  (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

A War of Flowers (Clara Vine 3) by Jane Thynne. Pub Nov 2014 by Simon and Schuster. Paperback Mar 2015, 416 pages.

The bells, the bells …

A Musical Interlude

I’ve just finished reading Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, which I shall be reviewing for Shiny New Books. I’ll just say it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year …

In the novel, the narrator’s mother is a German concert pianist – and Liszt’s piano étude La Campanella (the little bell) is an idée fixe running throughout the novel.  I was shocked to find that I don’t own a CD of this amazing piece of music, which is based on a theme from Paganini’s second violin concerto.  So I set out to explore, and there are just so many recordings out there – the tune is now a complete earworm for me! On my travels I came across some other bloggers’ favourites:  Eric at Lonesome Reader picked Valentina Lisitsa, whereas Claire at Word by Word chose Yundi Li to illustrate her post.

I hurried off to Youtube. Top of the list comes Lang Lang – technically perfect, yet far too showy for me. Alice Sara Ott was too clean and measured. There are many clips of Lisitsa playing it – including one on an out of tune piano in a park – her left hand, accompanying the dextrous tinkling of the right, is particularly lovely. The one for me though turned out to a performance from the Proms in 1997 by Russian-born, British-Israeli Evgeny Kissin. His intensity is ferocious, you see the sweat pouring off him in the later stages yet, he just sparkles in the light passages – he really inhabits the piece.

Do you have a favourite?  Here’s Evgeny…

Loneliness and a life wasted?

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

the-twinTranslated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

It’s quite a feat to win a major prize with your first novel, but that’s what The Twin did, taking the prestigious IMPAC Award in Dublin back in 2010.

Henk and Helmer are twins – identical in features, but with very different characters. When they were 19 in 1967, Helmer was studying at university in Amsterdam while Henk, the younger twin, was learning to be a farmer. Henk had a fiancée, Riet, and she was driving in the accident that killed Henk. Helmer had to give up university to take on the farm.  The boys’ father never forgave Riet and she left. Helmer never forgave his father for making him come back or for preferring Henk.

It’s now 35 years later and Helmer is in his fifties. He subsists. Beyond food shopping, he doesn’t go out, he looks after their small flock of sheep, their few cows, chickens and his pair of beloved pet donkeys. His mother had died years ago, but his aged father lives on, bedridden, ‘breathing and talking. Even now, here, I can hear him muttering.’  As the novel starts, Helmer has decided to move his father upstairs into the bedroom there, out of the way, perchance to die. When a letter from Riet arrives, Helmer panics – he tells her his father is dead. She comes to visit.

‘Hello Riet,’ I say.

Very old fury, a fury I can’t remember having, whose existence I didn’t even suspect, rises up inside me. Riet isn’t troubled by fury. I can see that. She is moved and confused, that’s what’s troubling her. The longer Henk is dead, the more I look like him, simply because there is no longer any comparing.

No, fury is too big a word, outrage is closer.

The purpose of her visit is to ask if her teenaged son could come and stay with him for a while, to be a farm hand; he’s called Henk.  Helmer can’t refuse, he can manage on his own, but the help would be useful, and so Helmer finally gets a chance to be a father-figure to someone. Young Henk will soon be ready to go out into the world for himself and it percolates through to Helmer what he’s missed, if only his father would hurry up and die.

The relationship between Helmer and his father is a complex one – no love lost between them at one moment, then something there the next. The pair have essentially colluded in a sort of mutual neglect over the years with the father stubborn and Helmer quietly resentful, wondering why his father had preferred his brother when they were twins.  Thirty-five years of this!  You have to feel sorry for Helmer.

The cover is initially entrancing, evoking a rural farming idyll but it wraps around the back too and that’s all you see, the vast flat expanses of the Dutch polders reclaimed from the sea.  The novel, too, evokes this flat, almost featureless land. It could be a solitary life, farming here. Helmer is lucky to have one neighbour, Ada, who keeps an eye on him; her young sons love the donkeys.  Yet it seems that Helmer goes out of his way to be solitary – he doesn’t try to make friends with the regular milk lorry driver for instance. He’s grumpy about his whole existence here – you just long for him to be freed from it.

Although a little drawn out in the middle, this novel was a compelling read. I had to find out what happened to Helmer and what his future would hold, the ending when it comes is entirely appropriate.  The text is not all grim, there is a certain dry humour to the writing. In style it is spare, yet there is much to read between the lines as you get to know Helmer.  It’s a stunning debut novel in a wonderful translation from a writer to look out for. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

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The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, trans David Colmer. (2009, Vintage, paperback, 288 pages).