The latest addition to my website is Leylâ Erbil‘s Tuhaf Bir Kadın (A Strange Woman). This is a feminist novel about Nermin, who is nineteen in 1950 and struggles both to be independent and to be seen as an intelligent woman, rather than merely as a sex object. Her mother, old-fashioned, a strict Muslim, is her worst enemy. We follow her early struggles, the story of her father, a naval engineer, who is dying, her father’s funeral, where her mother is out of control, and her life as a left-wing activist, trying to help the poor but not succeeding with that or in her personal life. Erbil gives us a worthwhile account of the problems facing a feminist and someone with left-wing views in a still very traditional and conservative country.
The latest addition to my website is Amanda Michalopoulou‘s Η γυναίκα του Θεού (God’s Wife). This is, indeed, the story of a fairly ordinary young woman (aged seventeen) who marries God, the conventional Christian God, who apparently gets lonely. He insists it is a platonic relationship but, apart from that, they live as man and wife, sharing a bed and living together. Like many men, he is not an easy husband, controlling, often absent and liking bad jokes. However, though there is humour in it, it is also a serious work about the nature of God and human interaction with Him, his inability to fully understand humans and how we (those who believe in God) might imagine Him.
The latest addition to my website is Dola de Jong‘s De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine). This book became famous as it is about lesbianism at a time (1954) when respectable Dutch women did not write about the topic. Bea is a sensible and responsible young woman. She meets Erica, an erratic and unpredictable young woman. Both are trainee journalists. It is 1938. They soon become close friends and move in together. Bea finds Erica’s behaviour both trying yet fascinating. They fall out when Bea’s boyfriend, Bas, and Erica clash. Erica wins and Bas is gone. It is only halfway through the book that Erica admits to Bea that she is lesbian and feels sure that Bea is too. Bea is certainly spellbound by Erica but she is resolutely heterosexual. The two continue their up and down relationship but Erica is half-Jewish and a German invasion is imminent. The book has now just been published for the third time in English and clearly the lesbianism helps but what makes it, is the complex and unpredictable relationship between two very different women.
The latest addition to my website is Clara Usón‘s Corazón de napalm [Heart of Napalm]. There are two stories going in. The first concerns Fede, an overweight thirteen year old boy, whose parents spend their life partying and doing drugs. When it all goes wrong, the parents split up and Fede and his father move to Santander, where his father has a new wife. Fede and his stepmother hate each other and Fede decides to run away to find his mother. It does not work out well. Meanwhile, Marta is painting for the famous artist, Maristany. He has a tremor so he has the ideas and she carries them out. The clients are none the wiser. However, she is fired by Maristany’s new wife, Solange. Sometime later she meets Juan, a judge specialising in juvenile crime. They start an affair, which has its ups and downs, while she struggles to make a living, till Solange phones her after Maristany’s death, to carry on her work. Though various things go wrong in both stories, the two do converge and in a surprising way. It is a very clever book with interesting ideas on art and juvenile crime but sadly not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Sara Mesa‘s Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four). This is a somewhat chilling novel. Most of the action takes place in Wybrany College, a mixed-sex boarding school, presumably in Spain. Most of the students come from rich families, though there are some poorer students on scholarships or children of the staff. The college is geographically isolated, as the rest of region seems to be suffering from a breakdown in law and order and environmental problems. Though the school is meant to be a haven, it gradually becomes apparent that something is wrong. Celia, the narrator of the first part of the book, and the assistant headmaster disappear, no-one knows why. In the second part, narrated by a new substitute teacher, Isidro, it gets worse with more disappearances and deaths and strange goings-on and not just in the school. Mesa cleverly builds up the tension, showing a world slowly falling apart but with people unsure of the cause and unable to deal with it.
The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s Actress. Norah FitzMaurice is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen. Norah has finally decided to tell the story of her mother, long after her death and we learn about Katherine’s rise and fall, her bad habits (drink, men, poor decisions and, the worst of all in Norah’s eyes, the failure to say who Norah’s father was). Katherine died at fifty-eight, a broken woman after three years in an asylum following her shooting of a producer in the foot. We follow both mother and daughter, the latter becoming a novelist, wife and mother, the former a flamboyant actress who almost made it in Hollywood and was successful on stage till she reached the age where there are fewer parts for women. Sometimes they clashed but Norah loved her mother and misses her but she would like to have known who her father was.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Czysty kraj [Pure Country]. This is the first and longest story in a collection called Ostatnie historie [Recent Stories]. It tells of Ida Marzec, a fifty-four year old divorced Polish tour guide who, when driving a friend’s car during winter, skids off the road. She seems to be unhurt but the car is badly damaged. She finds shelter with a nearby old couple and is examined by their grandson, a vet, and pronounced physically unharmed. She spends the next few days, drifting around, unsure of herself and where she is, reluctant to phone for help and thinking of her past life. Above all, images of death creep in, as she thinks about her mortality and her heart condition (which doctors say is minor but she is not so sure), the dog in the house who is dying of cancer and, eventually, the nature of the place where she is staying which is place that takes in dying animals and eases them to death. Is she one of them? It is another brilliant book by Tokarczuk, sadly available in seven languages but not English.
The latest addition to my website is Fowzia Karim‘s Above Us the Milky Way. Fowzia Karimi and her family – parents and five daughters – left Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet invasion and settled in California. This is their story – how and why they left, the problems of exile and reports of the continuing horrors they left behind. But Karimi is an artist by profession and this story is told by an artist as well as by one of the daughters. She illustrates it herself, both with her own paintings and family photos, but also with her words describing in a poetic/artistic way the joys of pre-Soviet Afghanistan and their family life. Indeed, they are such a close-knit family that she often describes the five sisters as one, even though all five have their own personalities. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, one for each letter of the alphabet, with appropriate themes from Afghanistan (for A) to Zenith (for Z), though her approach is more kaleidoscopic, jumping around with her images, both visual and verbal and her telling of the story in a non-chronological way. The result is a beautiful book, a story of the horrors of war and exile but not by any means a conventional one.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob). When you are self-isolating from a virus, a nearly one thousand page long novel by a Nobel Prize Winner written in a foreign language is the best way to distract yourself. It is availabe in Czech, Dutch, French, German and Swedish but will not appear in English till March 2021. The novel tells the story of the historical Jacob Frank, a false Messiah in 18th century Poland and surrounding areas, who attracts many followers and many enemies, who converts to both Islam and Christianity and becomes very involved with the rich and powerful in Poland, with Christians as well as Jews and moves around between what is now Turkey and Eastern Europe. Though the main characters are male, Tokarczuk portrays many strong women who play a key role behind the scenes. It is a brilliant but highly complex novel, with a cast of hundreds and lots of historical and religious issues.
The latest addition to my website is Agustina Bazterricas Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh). This is a novel about cannibalism, not occasional cannibalism but official, world-wide cannibalism. A virus has led to all animals being wiped out (though it may have been fake news) and eating human flesh is the norm. Certain groups (the poor, immigrants, the marginalised) have been bred for their meat. We follow the story of Marcos Tejos, manager at a processing plant, i.e. one which takes humans, kills them and sells them to butchers as meat. We follow Marcos as he makes his rounds, visiting the breeding stations, the butchers, even the hunters, though he has his own problems (wife gone back to her mother after death of their young son, father with dementia). Bazterrica spares us no details and she gives us full details of, for example, the slaughtering process. Not a novel for the squeamish but she makes her point about overpopulation, carnivores and human hypocrisy.