The first in an Italian trilogy…

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. […] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. […]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.

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Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own…

I don’t usually take part in the Top Ten weekly meme, but occasionally they and/or other regular memes will pick a topic that piques my interest. A couple of weeks ago the Top Ten topic was ‘The Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own’. I’m glad they made the distinction between own and read! Thanks to Librarything this was easy as I could sort my catalogue accordingly. I wasn’t really surprised by the results (except one), but it was fun. So here they are:

beryl bIain Banks BanksReadLeading the charge with 24 books on the shelves each are two of the three authors I am most passionate about. So much so that they have their own pages up at the top of this blog. Of course it’s the late-lamented Beryl and Iain. Have a look above to see more about both of them.

I really must make time to continue my plans to (re)read everything they’ve ever written.

ackroydFollowing close on their heels with 23 books is Peter Ackroyd. I find his books are a little hit and miss with me, but his best are wonderful, and the others are always interesting. Amazingly prolific, I’ve only managed to read/review one of his (The Death of King Arthur) since starting this blog. Others I’ve enjoyed include Hawksmoor, English Music and Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem.

Then come four authors with twenty books apiece.

Paul auster sh #1:4Top of the list alphabetically is Paul Auster, who happens to be the third of my favourite authors. Again he is definitely overdue another read. See here and here for posts on him and his books.

Don’t you think he has the most compelling eyes?  Married to Siri Hustvedt, he’s a New Yorker, and is the king of meta-fiction. Some people don’t like that, but I do!

Auster shares twenty books with Lawrence Block, John Le Carre and Michael Connelly. Two crime writers and one spy novelist.

liam-neeson-as matt scudderI see that Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among The Tombstones will be on the big screen soon starring Liam Neeson as the ex-cop, alcoholic but now TT private eye. Again I say to the adapters – why do you always start in the middle of a series?  Actually I’ve read up to about number twelve, so am ahead so to speak, and I really recommend them.

More spies and crime next.  At sixteen comes Ian Fleming – I have a complete set of James Bond naturally, and he keeps company with Elmore Leonard, who is probably the crime writer that makes me laugh the most – his dialogue-driven novels are usually hilarious as well as violent!

Having told you about nine authors, I can’t have a top ten – it’ll have to be a top twelve as three tie on fourteen books each. They are the incomparable Graham Greene, the prolific Stephen King, and the intriguingly named L Du Garde Peach.

l du Garde PeachPictures of Du Garde Peach are few and far between, so you’ll have to make do with this painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (not dated but Dugdale died in 1952, Du Garde Peach in 1974).

LDGP was the author of many plays for radio and stage, having a long association with the Sheffield Playhouse. He also wrote film scripts including the Boris Karloff film The Ghoul (1933).

Nelson ladybirdBut how would I own fourteen books by him?

Well, he wrote thirty titles for the Ladybird Adventures from History series, and I still have a pile of them from my childhood – much treasured (and all bearing my homemade library stickers).

If you want to find out more about old Ladybird books, visit The Wee Web which has them all!

So that’s my top twelve authors whose books I own.  Which authors feature at the top of your lists? 

 

A novel way of revisiting children’s classics…

Although I only studied it up to O-level, possibly my favourite subject at school was Latin. I continue to surprise myself by the amount of Latin I’ve retained over the years, but I do try to use it whenever I can.  Viz my blog’s Latin motto: Noli domo egredi nisi librum habesNever leave home without a book.  (Mottoes just have to be in Latin!)  On holiday in Normandy I revelled in being able to translate bits of the Bayeux Tapestry; I like reading Latin engravings on tombstones in old churches and so on. Now, I’m able to help my daughter with her homework (she doesn’t share my love for the subject, but is naturally good at it!).

winnie-ille-pohpu-001

Years ago I acquired Winnie Ille Pu and Domus Anguli Puensis translated by Alexander Lenard, which were first published in 1958 (and many other Pooh spin-off books not in Latin – The Pooh Perplex, The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet etc. Sadly, I’ve not kept any of them.)  Back to the Latin – it’s lovely to see Heffalump declined in Latin – Heffalumpus, Heffalumpum… It is an intuitive translation and is great fun for Latin-lovers.

One of my daughter’s favourite picture books as a child was Olivia by Ian Falconer. She’s since become a bit of a media star and had many sequels, TV series and merchandise, but that first Olivia book before all that was pure gold. She’s a precocious and genius of a piglet, of course! Fashion-conscious, arty, likes ballet and so on.

Recently I saw that it had been translated into Latin some years ago and The Book People had it in their sale – I just had to have it!

P1020163 (600x800)I love the bit where she’s bargaining with her mum over bedtime reading… her first bid is five. I’m going to have to buy the original again, aren’t I to make sure I got it all right, I think we passed it on, but it goes something like this…

‘No, Olivia, one only.’
‘Perhaps four?’
‘Two.’
‘Three.’
‘Done. Three.
But that’s enough!’

A piglet who enjoys reading – attagirl!

The one thing that all these books and the many parodies and cod-philosophical volumes have in common is that by their nature, you have to have read the original to enjoy the adaptation.

Go on, own up! Which books of this sort are on your shelves?  Be they foreign versions or parodies.  

I’ll also admit to owning several Asterix books in French (which is commendable), but also the funny (well it was back when I read it) Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (1968).

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Olivia by Ian Falconer (The original book)
Olivia: The Essential Latin Edition by Ian Falconer trans Amy High.
Winnie Ille Pu by A.A.Milne, trans Alexander Lenard. O/P but S/H available.
Bored Of The Rings (GOLLANCZ S.F.) – Harvard Lampoon.

 

 

Celebrating IBW with the Inky Fool & a Giveaway

Last night I was at my local indie bookshop and spiritual home Mostly Books for an event to celebrate Independent Booksellers Week. Each year the IBW people commission an essay to be sold as a little booklet only in indie bookshops. Previous authors have been Julian Barnes and Ann Patchett.

ibw2014Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and Elements of Eloquence, and blogger at The Inky Fool, who has been to Abingdon a couple of times before (see a previous report here) has written this year’s essay entitled The Unknown Unknown after Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote.  It’s about the joy of discovering books that you didn’t know you wanted to read when browsing in bookshops amongst other ‘state of the book’ discussions.

I have two extra copies of this great essay, which Mark kindly signed for me, to giveaway – details at the bottom of the post.

mark forsythMark (left) is on tour throughout IBW, and last night came to Abingdon to talk to us. The previous night he’d been at a big event at the new Foyles ‘The Great Bookshop Debate’.

Mark and Mark from the bookshop started off the evening talking about the essay and its main theme of ‘Discoverability’ – it’s difficult to google or search amazon for books you’re not aware of – but walk into a bookshop and you’ll find all those books you didn’t know about and didn’t know you wanted to read – it’s the joy of browsing. He told us how this very afternoon he found a book in a bookshop that he didn’t know he wanted – Peter Rabbit in hieroglyphics!

They talked about how the publishing industry appears to think the physical book is ‘doomed!’ (in Dad’s Army pronounciation of course), but Forsyth thinks they are whingeing a bit and it’s not as bad as all that. Actually it’s going alright he said, especially when you think about how the younger generation are communicating in text – you have to craft a text or tweet. He thinks the world is getting more literate in this respect. Also, surprisingly, he said that ‘e-books have made books beautiful again.’  Publishers are working harder on covers etc to attract readers of physical books.  He’s also not a fan of bookshops turning into coffee shops with a few books – people have to pick up the books to discover they want them.  Forsyth is a very engaging and refreshingly honest speaker which made for good conversation.

Browsing in the bookshop after the talk, I did find an ‘unknown unknown’ book that I just had to buy …  In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans from the German by Anthea Bell).  Which brings me to the…

* * * * * GIVEAWAY * * * * *

It was a lovely evening and I bought two extra copies of Mark’s essay to give away to you lot, which he kindly signed for me.  These are limited editions and can only be bought in UK indie bookshops.  I will happily send them worldwide.  You have until UK tea-time on Wednesday.

To go into the draw, please tell me about the last ‘unknown unknown’ book that you purchased (preferably in an independent bookshop – and give the shop a plug).

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth. Icon books 2013. 224 pages, hardback.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (transcribed into Egyptian Hieroglyphic script) by Beatrix Potter.
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge. Faber paperback.

On not finishing books and dentists!

You’d think that by my nearly mid-fifties I’d have grown out of not finishing books, wouldn’t you?  Life’s too short, the TBR’s too big and all that. Yet generally I desperately still want to finish reading any book I start.  There’s no ‘owing it to the author to give their book a fair read’ duty to this, I’m coming to the feeling that it’s mostly ‘hope’ that keeps me going, an optimistic outlook that hopes that a book that I’m stuck in, or not enjoying turns around by the end. Combine that the the sense of personal challenge, and that generally keeps me reading. It’s rare for me to give up on a book, but I did on the following one:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

ferris

I really enjoyed Ferris’s first novel Then we came to the end about office politics, downsizing and corporate management gobbledegook – I recognised elements of the latter in particular from the multinational I used to work for. I read it pre-blog and in my spreadsheet my capsule review says the following:

“On a normal workday you spend more time with your colleagues than your family and are forced into relationships with people you probably don’t like. Add a failing business where people are getting laid off one by one, and everyone else is scared witless that it’ll be them next – this makes for some strained behaviour which is exploited to the full in this novel.
By turns comic and sad, but always with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, my only complaint was it was too long; it was a bit flabby in parts and 300 pages would have been a better length. There were just some of the team I just couldn’t care less about that I got bored with, and others like Joe the supervisor who we never really got to know at all – but that was probably deliberate! I did love the bit with the Office Co-ordinator checking serial numbers on chairs (believe me that really happens!).”

Anyway I was looking forward to reading his new one which is about a dentist – especially as I’ve just had £1000 worth of root canal and crown work done!

It started well. The main character, dentist Paul O’Rourke, narrates the whole book as a monologue and the following paragraph is from the second page:

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. THat he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits he tried to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tried to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and molars stand erect as tombstones.

Soon after though Paul starts rambling, and essentially he rambles his way through the whole book. About golf, the Red Sox, his love-life or lack of, and especially religion and the meaning of life.  For an atheist, he seems to want something to believe in – and when a departing client commits identity theft and starts posting religious comments, from the devout to the weird to the nasty in his name – the rest of the book gets obsessed by him wallowing in it.  I lasted until about page 75, and then very quickly skimmed my way through the rest.  I’m glad I didn’t bother.  The main character is so tedious.

If the book has one saving grace – it’s Betsy Conrad – Paul’s super-efficient dental hygienist. She’s sixty, a widow, a devout Catholic and all round good egg whose role is to constantly question Paul and keep him running on the right track.

I’d come out of the bathroom and she’d be standing right there, “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d say. “Where have you been?” I’d tell her the obvious, she’d say, “Why must you call it the Thunderbox?” I’d tell her, adding a few details , and she’d grow severe, she’d say, ‘”Please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as ‘making the pope’s fountain.’ I know the pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic Church is nothing but a whetting stone for your wit. But I happen to hold the church in the highest regard, and though you can’t understand that, if you had any respect for me you would mind what you say about the pope.”

There are some really funny moments, and some passages that are brilliantly written particularly about work (again), but they get lost amongst all the psycho-babble about the meaning of life and finding yourself, and Paul being so self-centred. Ferris can write though, and I’ll certainly read more of him hoping that his best is yet to come.

P.S. I did like the epilogue though… (DNF)

For another take on this novel, see Rachel’s review at Book Snob

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, pub Penguin Viking, May 2014, Hardback 352 pages.

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

A Childhood Rediscovery …

The Martin Pippin books by Eleanor Farjeon

Coincidence is a funny thing. I moved a pile of my old children’s paperbacks, and at the top of the stack I left was this book. Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field by Eleanor Farjeon. It sort of looked familiar, and when I opened it up and saw the coloured in pictures (I always added to the illustrations when I was a child!), it got a bit less vague. Then I read a little, and it took me back…

CCF03282014_00001

Martin Pippin is a wondering minstrel, and one day he encounters six young girls who beg him to tell them stories…

Two were standing, two were stooping, two were sitting at their chain-making; and as they strung the daisy heads, they sang scraps and snatches of songs, no longer than a daisy-stalk…
Overhead the sky was going green, and the stars were making pin-pricks where the green was deepest, and the moon a yellow hole where it was palest, along the shoulder of Rackham Hill, and the dome of Amberley Mount. It was high time that the six little girls were in bed.
Martin thought so. And though he was afraid of nothing so much in the world as girls big and little, he made two strides across the boundless river, and stood in the daisy-field.

Martin Pippin 1SALLY: It’s him!
SYLVIA: What’s he come for?
SUE: To send us to bed, you know.
STELLA: I shan’t go.
SALLY: Let’s shut our eyes tight, so he’ll think we can’t hear him.
SOPHIE: I shall put my fingers in my ears.
STELLA: I shan’t. I just won’t go.
SELINA: I wonder why it’s so horrid going to bed, when it’s so nice being there.
SOPHIE: Oh it isn’t, S’lina. There’s nothing to do in bed, except go to sleep. …

They bicker some more until they realise Martin has come amongst them, whereupon they ‘shut their eyes tight, and put their fingers in their ears‘. They chat and Martin agrees to tell Sophie a story…  He tells each girl a story in turn – from the tale of Elsie Piddock who Skips in her Sleep, to the Mermaid of Rye who was born in a winkle.

Between each story is an interlude where he and the girls talk – sometimes in normal prose, sometimes as a script – just like above. The book is set in Sussex in and around the Long Man of Wilmington chalk hillside figure, who makes an appearance in one of them.  It is utterly charming – how could I have forgotten about this book? which I got or was given in 1969 – (I know that, I put the date on the inside cover, along with my full address – the one with the solar system etc.).  I shall have to make time to read the stories once again.

Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Field was first published in 1937, some 26 years after Farjeon’s first book featuring the story-telling minstrel – Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard.  The first book of stories was not written for children, but a young soldier who had been a friend of Edward Thomas, like Farjeon herself.

The coincidence came when I looked up the books on Amazon to see if they are still available – and lo and behold, a new paperback edition is due out next week!  Better news still, Martin Pippin in the Apple-Orchard is available for download on Project Gutenberg (no illustrations though).

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Martin Pippin in the Daisy-Fieldby Eleanor Farjeon, re-pub 31st March by Red Fox books, paperback
Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchardby Eleanor Farjeon, re-pub 31st March by Red Fox books, paperback

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

There was I, ready to cull some books …

… when I got totally distracted after only consigning one book to the charity shop pile by this little gem…

Pistache by Sebastian Faulks.

pistacheOriginating from the BBC Radio 4 literary quiz, The Right Stuff, each week contestants would do a little party piece at the end of the show as one writer attempting the style of another author, book or genre etc. – they were usually terribly comic, and always very clever.

Sebastian Faulks was one of the team captains, and he retooled his party pieces into this expanded collection of his pastiches, or pistaches. Once I’d started leafing through for some of my favourites, all thought of book culling went out of the window.

So we have Ernest Hemingway writing a Christmas round robin, Jane Austen in the 1830s – sorry 18-30 holiday, Richmal Crompton’s Just William grows up into an estate agent, and so on.  One clever one that grabbed me particularly was:

Dylan Thomas writes a cereal advert …

The force that through the green gut drives the food
Is each morning taken mortal fibre, tockticking,
Clockworking, regular in motion
Of day and wind and
Under milk good soaking of rough husk
Of hill-high rough-age in tough
Tock-ticking, regular,
From the farm in the blossoming hill through the mill
From bole to bowel to hwyl
Where gesture and psalm ring-
It is your thirtieth day to heaven
Consecutive,
In all dark, all black,
All brown, all Bran.

We also have George Orwell confronting the real 1984 – ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the miners were striking. …’   and hilariously – Sherlock Holmes has a conversation with Motson  (John ‘Motty’ Motson, was a wonderfully verbose football commentator).

I chuckled my way through these, wishing there were more (there will be a second volume next year), and now I have to go and cook dinner – no more time for book-culling today!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

“This land is your land, this land is my land…”

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landThe above quote from Woody Guthie seemed to fit the overarching theme of this novel perfectly.  It’s all about the illusion of The American Dream, its transitory nature – it certainly doesn’t last for any of the characters in habiting the land in Patrick Flanery’s accomplished second novel.

In a prologue set in 1919, we start off with the forebears of Louise, who inherit a large farm after a lynching. Later, Louise now a widow is forced to sell the land after her husband dies, just retaining her little house by the woods.

Paul Krovik, the purchaser and property developer, has a grand vision for the land – creating his own community with his dream home in pride of place. But, he’s a cheapskate – he uses unseasoned wood, he’s no architect either and his designs have flaws. He only gets 21 houses and his mansion built before the lawsuits come in. He’s bankrupted and the banks foreclose, allowing Nathaniel, Julia and their son Copley, to move down from Boston to the big house as they follow their own dreams.

There is tension right from the start, for after the story of how Louise’s family came by the land, we move to the present day as Louise visits Paul in prison.

‘I came Mr. Krovik. Here I am, just like you asked in your letter. So-.’  …

‘I really never imagined you’d come see me,’ he says.
‘No, I bet you didn’t. And to be frank, neither did I.’ …

‘I guess we used to neighbours, though, sort of. Didn’t we? Friends, even.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Louise says. ‘We weren’t really neighbours, and we certainly weren’t friends.

You can immediately sense that the nub of the novel will revolve around what happened to put him there, and this gives an edge of psychological drama to the whole book. To say more on this aspect would be to risk spoilers though.

Flanery gets each of these five characters to tell that story, taking it in turns as they take the lead voice in the action and each will have their own trajectory in the failures of their personal American Dreams. The strangest is these of Nathaniel, who newly promoted to the HQ of a multinational security company who doesn’t believe in privacy, is tasked with working out how to put prisoners in privatised jails to proper work generating income for the company. It soon becomes clear that he’s signed up to be one of the tentacles of a new Big Brother – a spookily prescient vision.

Nathaniel has no illusions about the nature of his company’s corporate campus development, or of the kind of work EKK is going in the city. It is promoting a vision of how, from the core of self-professed corporate personhood, a new conception of the body politic can radiate across and subsume the previously blighted urban landscape. Companies must, by their nature, attend to the image they project in the world, and by suggesting in it national headquarters, located dead in this country’s heartland, that it is not just an inward-looking corporation, but one focusing its gaze outward, seeing the world around it, attending to it, to the people who live within it, to the way its presence might be interpreted by those who look upon it, the company communicates the truth of its mission: involvement in all kinds of business, in potentially every kind of business.

The only character that we really warm to throughout is seven year old Copley – a quiet, but observant child, who has some odd mannerisms, we wonder if he is on the edge of the Asperger’s spectrum. His new school is run by Nathaniel’s company, where everything is observed and subject to rules. He doesn’t thrive, and his over-stressed parents don’t seem to believe a word he says, about school, and about the house. Copley’s voice stays rigidly to the clock, his paragraphs each prefixed with the time.

Alongside all these tensions is an underlying sense that Mother Nature is just waiting to reclaim her land too, for this land east of LA is prone to sink holes appearing. It adds another layer to this novel of the fear of failure, warped businesses and dysfunctional families. This is a slowburning story, building up over its 400 pages or so to a real climax. Flanery’s writing is lucid yet subtle, a real pleasure to read, definitely making him one to watch. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine Review Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery, pub May 2013, Atlantic Books, Hardback 432 pages