Rana Haddad: The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor

The latest addition to my website is Rana Haddad:‘s The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor. This is the first novel by a Syrian woman who has spent her adult live in England. This novel tells the story of a Syrian woman, daughter of an English woman and a Syrian heart surgeon, Dunya Noor who, growing up in Syria, does not behave either in the way a young woman is expected to behave in Syria nor does she uncritically support the (Hafez) Assad regime. When she refuses to attend a voluntary demonstration, her mother takes her back to England before there are serious problems. There she meets another Syrian, Hilal, who is a physicist, studying the Moon. They live together but, when Hilal learns of his father’s death six months after the event, they decide to return. Hilal disappears and Dunya, with the help of a singer she meets in a men-only café, tries to track him down. This is a fascinating feminist, anti-Assad love story.

Ricardo Piglia: Plata quemada (Money to Burn)

The latest addition to my website is Ricardo Piglia‘s Plata quemada (Money to Burn. This is a novelised account of an actual robbery from a bank armoured car in Buenos Aires. Piglia was a journalist at the time and reported on the case. The robbery succeeds but the police track down the robbers, with others betrayed by an informer. There is a final shoot-out in Montevideo. Piglia gives the book both a political edge – it seems that some politicians and police officers might have been involved – as well as a psychological edge, as the criminals seem to be psychopaths, serious drug users and generally mentally flawed. The novel was controversial – Piglia was sued three times over it (details in review) – but it has been acclaimed as a foremost Latin American novel and is certainly a good read.

Paolo Cognetti: Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains)

The latest addition to my website is Paolo Cognetti‘s Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains), which won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy. It tells the story of Pietro, only child of two mountain lovers. His father, in particular, is very keen on climbing at high altitudes in the Italian Alps and Pietro gets the bug. His mother, who prefers the lower reaches, persuades the father to rent a small cottage in Grana and the father and then, when he is older, Pietro go up the mountains. It is in Grana that Pietro meets Bruno, a boy of his own age and they become lifelong friends. Bruno is a mountain man and their close relationship helps Pietro develop his love of mountains. There is a falling-out between father and son, and between the friends when Pietro becomes a teenager but Pietro rediscovers his love of mountains with the help of Bruno.

J. G. Farrell: Troubles

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. This novel, which won the Lost Man Booker Prize more than thirty years after the author’s death, is the first in Farrell’s acclaimed Empire Trilogy. It is set in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a symbol of the decaying British Empire, located in County Wexford in Ireland, at the end of the First World War and during a period when unrest in Ireland is increasing. Major Archer, who had been invalided out of the army for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to have accidentally got engaged to Angela, daughter of the owner of the Majestic and goes to stay with the family there, her father, staunchly opposed to any Irish independence, her irresponsible brother and her almost evil twin sisters. He barely sees Angela, who is ill, but watches as both the hotel and British rule in Ireland, crumble in synchronicity. It is a superb novel and deserves the reputation it had when it first came out.

Chico Buarque: Leite Derramado (Spilt Milk)

The latest addition to my website is Chico Buarque‘s Leite Derramado (Spilt Milk). The book is narrated by a hundred-year old Brazilian man, who is lying in a hospital bed in Rio de Janeiro, in a public hospital. He comes from a rich family but the family has fallen on hard times, partially through poor investments, partially through dishonest dealings. His father was murdered, either because of sex or money, his son-in-law ran off with the family money, his grandson was murdered by the police (apparently) and his great-grandson killed in a dubious kidnapping. His great-great grandson seems to be well-off, though possibly from drug dealing. His wife left him with a baby, though it is not clear what happened to her, as various explanations are given by this unreliable narrator. Now he lies in a hospital bed, talking to his daughter, the nurses and his long dead parents about the family and his not very successful life, criticising all and sundry. It is both a funny book but also a serious attempt to look at Brazil, its history, its corruption and its racism.

The murals of Sheffield, Tasmania

Yesterday & Tomorrow copyright Aileen Gough & Karen Armstrong

Sheffield, a small town in Northern Tasmania, has since December 1986, become the town of murals. All over the town, you will see murals on walls and boards, most of them highly imaginative and colourful. Every year, the town holds a a mural festival.

My favourite was the one you can see in my not very good photo above to the left, Yesterday & Tomorrow , painted by Aileen Gough and Karen Armstrong . You can see more about their paintings and many other murals here.

On reading novels in an appropriate place

The picture on the left is Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand, where I am at the moment. Purely by chance the book I am reading is Paolo Cognetti’s Otto Montagne, to be published in English in March as Eight Mountains. The novel won the Italian Strega Prize and, as the title tells us, is about mountains and mountain-climbing. I shall be reviewing it on return from my travels. It is set both in the Italian Alps and the Himalayas and Pietro, the hero/narrator, both of his parents and his best friend, Bruno, are lovers of mountains. It is a real joy to read it while looking at Mount Cook and the other peaks in the range.

Does reading a novel in an appropriate place enhance the reading experience? Should we read Wuthering Heights at Top Withens? War and Peace at Borodino? Voss in the Australian desert? 古都 (The Old Capital) in Kyoto?


I have occasionally made a conscious attempt to read a work in the place it was associated with: I read some of Ulysses in Dublin, Yeats poetry in Sligo, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts at Briggflatts and even some Hemingway at Key West. However, on the whole, like most people, I have read most books at my home, none of which have had any particular literary associations.

Does it make a difference? I think it does. Whenever I read about Pietro going up a mountain, I look out of the window and imagine him climbing here. Sitting next to me is my wife reading, as she always does when we come to New Zealand, Lord of the Rings, and, everywhere we go, she can associate with some part of Tolkien’s novel.

Most of us will continue to read at home or, perhaps, on the commute to and from work, but it is certainly occasionally enjoyable to read a novel or poetry with the place it is associated with.

The Year of Manuel Pedrolo?

Could this be the year of Manuel de Pedrolo, the great Catalan science fiction writer? His best-known novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin) is finally being published in English this April.

As this article shows (link in Spanish), it is going to be The Year of Manuel de Pedrolo in Spain.

De Pedrolo was very prolific, writing poetry, theatre, short stories, novels and articles in the press. He also translated novelists such as John le Carré and Georges Simenon. He was ahead of his time, anti-capitalist and in favour of Catalan independence when neither view was fashionable or, indeed, safe. He only wrote in Catalan, never in Spanish. Because of his themes – sex, violence, anti-capitalism – he was a victim of Franco’s censors.

Now his house is to become a museum, thanks to the efforts of his daughter, Adelais. There will various events to celebrate his work and his life. Much of his writing will be digitised and made available on line. And, as mentioned, English-speaking readers will be able to discover why he is revered in Catalonia.

Vladimir Sharov: До и во время (Before and During)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sharov‘s До и во время (Before and During). This book was written immediately after his Репетиции (Rehearsals) and covers some of the same topics, namely the subverting of Russian history, particularly the Russian Revolution, and the idea of a Christian Utopia. Our hero is Alyosha who, as a result of a fall, has blackouts and is admitted to a mental institution, which has had a colourful history. He had, before admittance, had the idea of writing a Memorial Book, about people who would otherwise have been forgotten (based on an idea by Ivan the Terrible!) and now decides to do the same for the residents of the hospital. However, one of the residents tells him a highly imaginative version of the story of Germaine de Staël who, amongst others things, was the midwife of the Russian Revolution, the biological mother of Stalin and lover of the composer Alexander Scriabin, who was actually born fifty-five years after she died. It is all Sharov’s way of using Russian history in a highly creative way to show his ideal of a Christian Utopia but, at the same time, makes for a really fascinating read.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 黒白 (In Black and White)

The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 黒白 (In Black and White). This is the sixteenth Tanizaki on my site. It was first published in 1928 in a newspaper but it has never been published separately before, either in Japanese or in any other language. It appeared in his collected works published in Japanese in 1957 and will appear in French ten days after appearing in English. It is a clever crime story about a dissolute crime writer who writes a story about the perfect murder, with the murdered being based on himself and the victim being based on a casual acquaintance. He then worries the model for the victim will really be murdered and he will blamed. He tries to make sure he has a continuous alibi in case the man is murdered but then forgets, as he is distracted by a German prostitute who occupies most of his attention. It is a clever story and it is surprising that it has never been published separately before.