The latest addition to my website is Robert Irwin‘s The Runes Have Been Cast. This is a very funny spoof campus novel/spoof ghost story, set in the early 1960s. Two Oxford University English lit students have been asked to write on the Victorian ghost story, and this gives us a lead-in to many references to ghosts and the like, particularly inspired by the works of M. R. James. Lancelyn gets a first and heads to St Andrews University, where he gets involved in academic politics as well as arcane English literature, while Bernard gets a starred first and stays at Oxford. Coming between them is Molly, who switches her favours more than once. The ghosts are hovering, people turn out not to be who they seem to be and Irwin mocks ghosts, academics, English lit, sex and anything else that passes by. It is great fun and you will also learn about authors and books you have never heard of.
The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Franzen‘s Crossroads. This is another huge book from Franzen telling the story of a dysfunctional family (church minister father, mother, three sons and one daughter) set in New Prospect, Illinois, in the early 1970s. None of the characters can be said to be evil but all bar the youngest son make serious mistakes and do or say something nasty to at least one other character in the book. We follow in detail their back stories and their current lives.The minister-father plans adultery, the mother worries about her weight and her family, the eldest son drops out, the prom queen daughter messes up her life and the second son uses and deals drugs. The title, by way, refers to the general meaning of the term, the name of the youth centre where some of the action takes place and Robert Johnson‘s famous blue song of that name. Franzen tells an interesting and complex story of your everyday dysfunctional US family.
The latest addition to my website is Najwa Bin Shatwan‘s (Catalogue of a Private Life). This is a collection of eight stories from Libya. Some are serious, but most are satirical, absurd and/or surrealistic, telling of the grim situation in Libya and the repression of the people, particularly the women. We have a cow that is a giant missile, a village which can travel round the world, a fuel queue from Tripoli to Tunis, and a general with a lot of weapons but no army but also girls who are never allowed to leave their home and a woman who is told she should be forbidden from entering all seven levels of heaven because she was not wearing a hijab. Bin Shatwan tells her stories very well and they are well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is David Diop‘s Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black). This book won the International Booker Prize in 2021. It tells the story of Alfa Ndiaye and his friend, Mademba Diop, Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French in World War I. Mademba is killed by a German pretending to be dead, who stabs him in the stomach. Alfa gets his revenge by hiding near shell-holes and killing any emerging Germans. He carries back their rifles, with the severed hands holding the rifle, back to the trenches. He is initially feted but then, when he continues, feared as a madman and sent to the rear to rest. In the rear, we learn of his past and his voyage of self-discovery, with Diop using fable, legend and inner psychology to aid him. It is a superb read, mixing conventional realism and more traditional forms.
The latest addition to my website is Abdulrazak Gurnah‘s Afterlives. The novel tells the story of the country that will become Tanzania from the beginning of the 20th century (when it was under German control) to independence in 1961. The focus, however, is on the story of a few individuals when the country was under German control. These are ordinary people struggling to make a living in an unnamed town, though, with one exception, they are not overly affected by the German occupation. Khalifa works as a clerk and marries the boss’s niece. Ilyas is very pro-German,as a German officer helped him when he was being brutalised by an askari. Afriya, his younger sister is ill-treated by her relatives when her parents die. Hamza joins up to fight for the Germans in World War I and sees and is a victim of a lot of brutality but survives. While condemning the Germans for their cruelty, he is also critical of the British. He tells a first-class story while showing us the political situation in his country over some sixty years.
The latest addition to my website is Damon Galgut‘s The Promise, the second in my reading of 2021 African prize winners. This book won the Booker Prize. It tells the story of the Swarts, a dysfunctional white South African family. While she is very ill (she will die at the beginning of the book) Rachel persuades her husband Manie to give the rundown cottage where the maid Salome lives to Salome. He promises to do so, thinking no-one has heard, However, their thirteen year old daughter Amor was just outside and heard it all. We follow the family over the years, from the latter years of apartheid to modern times, with Amor trying to get justice for Salome and the family drifting apart, squabbling and, in a few cases, dying before their time. The Swarts pay their price for the ill-treatment of their black servant as Galgut criticises the white South Africans for their treatment of the native population.
The novel was influenced by the story of the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem whose novel Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence) was hailed as a great work but then accused of plagiarism. Ouologuem disappeared to a remote village in Mali. This story is about a fictitious Senegalese writer, T C Elimane who, in 1938, published Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain [The Labyrinth of the Inhuman], hailed as a great novel and then accused of plagiarism. He, too, disappeared and various people try to track him down culminating with the narrator, a young and not very successful Senegalese writer, Diégane Latyr Faye. He gets the back story – gradually – from a few other people and it is complicated, involving Nazis, , a Haitian woman poet, a strip club, lots of criticism of racism, a fair amount of (but not too much) sex, including at least one episode qualifying for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, polygamy, the use of mystic, otherworldly powers, World War I and World War II, blindness, the horrors in what was Zaire and unreliable narrators. The story is superbly told and written in a beautiful French and clearly deserving of winning the Prix Goncourt. It has yet to be translated but almost certainly will be and, when it appears in English, I can highly recommend it.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Chevreuse This novel follows the usual Patrick Modiano modus operandi. A man (Modiano’s alter ego) looks back, both from the age of seventy and the age of twenty. He meets various suspicious characters, a mysterious woman, visits a mysterious flat in Paris and revisits the house he lived in as a child (with no parents to be seen) in Chevreuse. We and he gradually learn that dirty deeds are afoot and that he may have witnessed a key event when he was five, for which the bad guys are now after him (when he is twenty and they have rediscovered him). Another enjoyable novel from Modiano.
The latest addition to my website is Manon Steffan Ros‘s Llyfr Glas Nebo (Blue Book of Nebo). This is a Welsh post-apocalyptic novel, translated from the Welsh. Following what looks like a nuclear war and the failure of a local nuclear power station, thirty-six years old Rowenna and her fourteen year old son, Dylan, living in a remote Welsh village, seem to be the only survivors, everyone else having died or moved away. The pair manage to survive, trapping animals and growing their own crops and we follow them, how they change from the pre-apocalypse period and become resourceful and resilient, but also learning, both from books they take from abandoned houses and from their struggle. But is there anyone out there?
The latest addition to my website is Wolfgang Hilbig‘s Das Provisorium (The Interim). This novel tells the story of C. He had been a good East German, working in a factory and then, at the age of forty, became a full-time writer. He eventually gets a visa to spend a year in West Germany, leaving his live-in girlfriend and mother. Much of his money is made from book tours, which he hates, rarely seeing the city but hanging out near the railway stations, which symbolise the journey home. He does go home a few times but when his visa expires and he has not applied for renewal, he is more or less stuck in West Germany and cannot really cope, feeling he belongs to neither country. He turns to drink and pornography, failing in relationships and moving to a different city, always on an interim basis. A sad but superbly written story of man who has lost his way.
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