Miljenko Jergović: Rod (Kin)

The latest addition to my website is Miljenko Jergović‘s Rod (Kin). This is an 800-page family novel, as the author calls it, but do not let that put you off. It is essentially the stories (mini-novels) of, primarily, his mother’s family, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century but also of his extended family, friends and neighbours, set over a hundred years, ending in 2012 with his mother’s death. We cover a large range of languages, ethnic groups, a few religions, plenty of divergent political views, different overlords and, of course, a few wars. The author tells his story up to the death of his mother in 2012 (he had moved to Zagreb, she was still in Sarajevo). The key event in her life was the death of her brother, Mladen, who died when she was seventeen months old, killed while fighting for the Germans. Her mother never forgave her for living while Mladen died and she, too, was far from a perfect mother. Above all, however, Jergović tells us a host of mini-novels, some funny, some sad, some involving famous people, but many involving ordinary people but all fascinating, colourful and highly imaginative.

Thomas Hardy and Athelhampton

We managed to travel further afield than the neighbouring town for the first time for a while this week and headed down to Dorset for a long break. En route we stopped off at Athelhampton, a privately owned house, dating from the fifteen century, though people had built on the site well before that. It is currently owned by Giles Keating, an obviously rich banker (the house cost him £7.5 million) but it is till open to the public. It is of particular interest because of its connections with Thomas Hardy.

Both Hardy and his father worked on the property and Hardy himself painted a watercolour of it. However, once he became a famous writer, he became a regular visitor when the property was owned by Alfred De Lafontaine. Hardy set his poem The Dame of Athelhall there (it is about a woman ghost who wanders the rooms of the hall. We did not see her.) He also used the hall as background in two of his novels: A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Madding Crowd.

The National Trust owns two buildings with Hardy connections:
Max Gate and Hardy’s Cottage. Both are currently closed, though we had visited them previously. They will be open for pre-booked guided tours as from 23 Jun.

You can visit the Thomas Hardy Monument, which is in the open air and visible for miles around. However, it is not a monument to that Thomas Hardy, but another Thomas Hardy, the sea captain and later admiral who was Nelson’s deputy at the Battle of Trafalgar and who is know to generations of British schoolchildren as Nelson allegedly said to him, as he lay dying, Kiss me Hardy, though he might have said Kismet, Hardy. He survived Nelson by thirty-four years. He did not write any books.

Mohamed Kheir: عباصلأا تلافإة (Slipping)

The latest addition to my website is Mohamed Kheir‘s عباصلأا تلافإة (Slipping). This book is seemingly a book of separate stories but, gradually, they nearly all get some connection to one of the two main themes. The first is the story of Seif, a magazine journalist who has to show Bahr, an Egypian exile round Alexandria but it is Bahr who leads him around showing him a completely and recently abandoned village, killer flowers and a way to almost get killed by trams. Meanwhile, the other theme is the government’s attempt to reduce people’s spare time, as they might use it to cause trouble, by increasing bureaucracy and we learn of the people who get caught out by this. Other stories involve a massive private hospital for just one person and a man who is firmly controlled by his dead father. The stories are all highly imaginative, often involving death and/or loss and are enhanced once we make the connections.

Dag Solstad: Ellevte roman, bok atten (Novel 11, Book 18)

The latest addition to my website is Dag Solstad‘s Ellevte roman, bok atten (Novel 11, Book 18). This book tells the story of Bjørn Hansen, a man with a successful civil service career and married with a son. He meets and falls for another woman, Turid Lammers. He abruptly leaves his wife and family and his life in Oslo to join her in Kongsberg. When she sees a job for city treasurer advertised he applies for it and gets it, to avoid the long commute. They join the drama society – she is a drama teacher – and all goes well till they try Ibsen. Gradually he loses interest in her, both because of what happened with the Ibsen and because she is losing her charms as she gets older. Feeling his life is bereft of menaing he plans on what he calls The Great Negation but is interrupted in his plans when his son reappears in his life, going to university in Kongsberg. He is somewhat disappointed in his son and goes ahead with The Great Negation, a life-changing action. Solstad gets under the skin of Hansen, as we see life through his eyes but perhaps question some of his actions.

Ellis Sharp: Neglected Writer

The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s Neglected Writer. The eponymous neglected writer may well refer to Sharp himself, a British experimental writer who is still relatively unknown. However, it probably refers to Eliot Blount, the narrator of this novel. Blount is an Englishman in Hollywood in 1932. He receives an anonymous phone call telling him that Paul Bern, the film director and husband of the actress Jean Harlow, is dead. This leads him on a trail. Did Bern really kill himself? Who was the mysterious caller? And can he make a gangster film out of a Virginia Woolf novel? For while, there is a fascinating plot, Sharp has a lot of fun and games,mocking Hollywood, making obscure literary and cinema references, telling in-jokes and following Eliot’s weird and often erotic dreams. (Yes, Freud also makes an appearance). It is clever, witty and a highly enjoyable read.

Emilio Fraia: Sevastopol (Sevastopol)

The latest addition to my website is Emilio Fraia‘s Sevastopol (Sevastopol). This consists of three linked stories inspired by Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, though only one is actually set (in part) in Sevastopol. All three, however, are about people struggling with relationships and struggling to find meaning in their life. The first is about a Brazilian woman who wants to be the first Brazilian woman to climb the Seven Summits but an accident puts paid to that ambition and her relationship. The second is about a man running a remote hotel which he has had to close and who loses his last guest. The third is about two Brazilian men trying to stage a play about a painter during the Crimean War who does not want to paint battles. Neither their relationship nor the play go well. Fraia tells excellent stories of lost souls struggling to find meaning.

Ta-wei Chi: 膜 (Membranes)

The latest addition to my website is Ta-wei Chi‘s 膜 (Membranes). This novel is a queer transgender climate-change Taiwanese novel set in the twenty-second century. Everyone now lives under the sea because of climate change. We follow the story of Momo, the top skincare specialist in T City. Momo lives a solitary life, seeing only her clients and giving them a membrane which she can, with a scanner, determine what they have been doing. She had a serious operation when she was seven – she was in hospital for three years – as a result of which she lost both her friend Andy (who we know to have been a cyborg) and also her penis (all is later explained). Since then she has fallen out with her mother, a successful publisher, and they have had no contact for twenty years. Now as she approaches thirty, mother reappears and Momo is determined to find out what happened. She and we are in for a shock. This is an excellent novel, dealing with Momo’s mental state, new technology and Momo’s mental state as well as climate change and the major plot twist.

Lana Bastašić: Uhvati zeca (Catch the Rabbit)

The latest addition to my website is Lana Bastašić‘s Uhvati zeca (Catch the Rabbit). Sara is a Bosnian woman who has been living for some time in Dublin with her Irish boyfriend. One day, out of the blue, she gets a call from Lejla, her childhood friend, with whom she has had no contact for twelve years. Lejla wants her to drive her from Mostar (in Bosnia) to Vienna. Sara declines still she learns that Arnim is there. Arnim is Lejla’s brother who disappeared many years ago. The story revolves around both their drive but also their earlier life as friends. Lejla is a larger-than-life character, very much her own girl and then her own woman. Sara admires her, looks up to her but is afraid of her and feels threatened by her. Their relationship is very up and down and, indeed, when they reunite for the drive to Vienna, there is a lot of quarrelling. What makes this book is both the colourful relationship between the two but also the character of Lejla, a woman who carries her own story.

Sonallah Ibrahim: االلجن وردة (Warda)

The latest addition to my website is Sonallah Ibrahim‘s االلجن وردة (Warda). This tells the story of Rushdy, a left-wing Egyptian, who has spent time in prison for his political activities. When younger he had met and fallen for Shahla. She and her brother went off to Oman to fight in the Dhofar Rebellion, and Shahla, taking the name Warda (meaning Rose), leads a guerilla troop. Rushdy, visiting, some thirty years later, a cousin who is living in Oman, is determined to track down Warda who seems to have disappeared. He gradually gets hold of her diaries and we follow her troop and her views on the left-wing political events of the day, with Warda and her comrades convinced that the triumphant march forward will bring liberation for the Arab peoples. Meanwhile Rushdy is finding contemporary(i.e. 1992) politics are more complicated than he realised as he travels round Oman looking for Warda. Lost love meets politics in a fine novel.

Yassin Adnan: ت ماروك (Hot Maroc)

The latest addition to my website is assin Adnan‘s ت ماروك (Hot Maroc). Our hero is Rahhal Laâouina, a young Moroccan man, who is not very heroic. He is not very bright, devious, weak, cowardly but has a low cunning. His family has always had bad luck. He is thrown out of university for failing but manages to get back in by political means. He studies Arabic literature and for his thesis teams up with Hassaniya, a traditional Muslim, far brighter than Rahhul. She has a ready made job in a school when she graduates and simply needs a ready-made husband and Rahhul, to his and our surprise, gets the job. Hassaniya’s employer opens a cybercafé for him and soon he is in his element, particularly having multiple online identities when he comments on the Hot Maroc news website. He soon makes an (anonymous) name for himself, damns his various enemies but is coopted by the police to follow the party line. But despite his devious behaviour, as the narrator tells us, Rahhul’s life is elsewhere but he does not know where. We follow elections, a fatwa, public health, feminism, pornography, marital (in)fidelity, apostasy and a host of other issues as Morocco goes fully online and Rahhul struggles to keep up.

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