The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s The Accidental. This takes as its theme a partially dysfunctional family: mother, two children, father (second marriage) who are disrupted by the arrival of a stranger out of the blue who changes them all in various ways, both when she is there and after she has left, not necessarily for the better. The philandering stepfather, the mother, a writer, appropriating the lives of real people, the seventeen-year old son responsible for the death of a girl at his school and the twelve-year old who is bullied all confront their issues following the arrival of Amber. The idea is not original but Ali Smith, as always, carries out it very well, not going for the easy options and keeping us guessing.
The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Halfon‘s Duelo (Mourning). This is a book about memory and recovering memory. The narrator – called Eduardo Halfon – carries out two investigations. The first is to track down the story of his grandfather, who had been in various concentration camps during the Holocaust but had survived and emigrated to Guatemala. The grandfather had refused to return to Poland or, indeed, to speak Polish, because of what he saw as the betrayal of the Jews by the Poles. The second is to find out what really happened to his father’s brother, Salomón, who may or may not have drowned in a lake when he was five. Halfon tells an excellent story of the two investigations and of his family in Guatemala and the United States, making it one of the more worthwhile memoir-as-novel books.
The latest addition to my website is Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Eszkoriál [Escorial]. This book follows the life of Francis Borgia, descendant of those Borgias, later Director-General of the Society of Jesus and canonised nearly a hundred years after his death. He had a colourful life and Szentkuthy inevitably makes it more colourful, while being critical of Spain of that era (sixteenth century). Though the novel is primarily set in Spain, we spend a fair amount of time in legendary China, meet Francis’ great-aunt Lucrezia Borgia and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, among other notables, and follow the contemporary political situation. As always, Szentkuthy charges off on tangents, plays havoc with historical accuracy and chronology and has great fun condemning Catholic Spain.
The latest addition to my website is Richard Powers‘ The Overstory. This is another first-class, long and complex novel from Powers. Its subject is trees, particularly the idea that trees are, to some degree, sentient, rational beings and the fact that trees are being chopped down in unprecedented numbers in the United States and elsewhere, to the detriment of human beings and, indeed, pretty well all other land-based species. We follow the stories of eight individuals/families and how they are affected by trees or, in some cases, by an individual tree and how they come to realise the importance of trees and the fact that they need protecting. In particular, some of these characters come together and commit both legal and illegal acts to prevent trees from being logged. Inevitably, they face the power of the state when they commit illegal acts. Powers give us a wonderfully complex novel, a series of superbly written interlocked stories and lots to think about. Indeed, you will think differently about trees after you read this book, which I urge you to do.
The latest addition to my website is Scholastique Mukasonga‘s Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile). The novel tells the story of an elite girls’ school in the highlands of Rwanda. We follow some of the individual girls and teachers, as well as the various events at the school. In particular, the school is located not far from the source of the Nile and there is a black Madonna overlooking the site, to which the school makes an annual pilgrimage. However, this is the period when the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is breaking out and one girl, Gloriosa, daughter of a powerful father, helps foment the conflict in the school, even as it is starting up elsewhere in the country. As the school has both Hutu and Tutsi girls, things become very unpleasant. One of the girls is based on Mukasonga herself, who had to flee the country, while many of her family members were killed.
The latest addition to my website is Jorge Barón Biza‘s El desierto y su semilla (The Desert and Its Seed). This is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, telling of the grim events that happened in the author’s family. Barón Biza’s father threw acid in the face of his wife (while they were discussing divorce with their lawyers). She was badly injured. He then shot himself. Much of the novel involves the various complex, expensive and painful operations that Eligia, the mother in this book, had to undergo in both Argentina and Milan, with her son by her side much of the time. When he was not by her side, he was drinking and whoring. (Both Barón Biza and his sister will also later kill themselves.) The novel is very well told – Barón Biza’s only novel – as Mario, Barón Biza’s name in this book, describes the events, analyses himself and his father and tries to use dry humour to keep going.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Non luogo a procedere (Blameless). This novel continues Magris’ favourite theme of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. The unnamed protagonist has collected a mass of material relating to war, with a view to establishing a museum in Trieste. Sadly, at the start of the novel he has died in a fire and only now is the museum being set up, by Luisa Brooks, who has a Jewish mother and an African-American father. We see the exhibits, hear a lot of stories (generally based on historical events) about the horrors of war, particularly but by no means only World War II, follow the story of Luisa and her family and of the unnamed protagonist and learn of key documents which have gone missing, which show those Italians who helped the Nazis but who have managed to not only survive but prosper. Magris makes no bones about his views and illustrates them with a host of fascinating stories about war and its horrors.
The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Melancholia I (Melancholy). This book is about a real person, the Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, though there is no indication in the English translation that he was real. Hertervig came from a poor background but was discovered and sponsored by a local businessman and was sent to study in Düsseldorf. There he had a mental breakdown and we follow a day in his life, when this breakdown is taking place. Fosse shows us his thinking – irrational, obsessed, insecure, rambling – as he is thrown out of his rented rooms for an improper relationship with the daughter of his landlady and mocked by his fellow art students. We later see him back in Norway, in a mental institution, still struggling with his demons. Fosse gives us a good portrait of his insanity and even shows us a contemporary writer (1991) struggling with writing about him.
The latest addition to my website is Glen James Brown‘s Ironopolis. This is a superb first novel, set in a sink estate in the North of England. We follow seven main characters (and a host of others) as they struggle with their lives – drugs, failed relationships, the regeneration of the estate, violence. However, Brown is a skilled writer and it is not all the miseries of a sink estate but also about they cope with their environment, with one another and even with Peg Powler, an evil water sprite. There are a few plot lines – abducted girls, an artist who apparently sees Peg Powler and then paints her, characters who fall down a well and those who get caught up in a spiral of violence – which make this much more of a complex and very readable novel.
The latest addition to my website is Mieko Kawakami‘s ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich). This is a charming novel about a ten year old boy, an only child whose father died when he was four, who is struggling with growing up. He takes a fancy to a woman he nicknames Ms Ice Sandwich, who works at the sandwich bar in the local supermarket, though he is too shy to speak to her, except to order a sandwich (which he often does not eat). It is a girl of his own age – nicknamed Tutti Frutti – who does more to introduce him to the opposite sex, when she invites him to her house to watch her father’s DVD collection and, in particular, Heat, with its frequent shoot-outs, which appeal to Tutti Frutti. Haruki Murakami praised Kawakami but while I found this novel a pleasant read, I cannot share Murakami’s enthusiasm.