Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review: 'The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, trans. by David Burnett

I have related the reason for this blog's name before, but somehow Pushkin Press continues to give me reasons to do so over and over again. So, I named this blog A Universe in Words because for me reading has always been about learning, discovering and exploring. I grew up reading books in three different languages and this set me on a path of continuously looking for books in other languages, realising there are whole worlds, universes even, out there waiting for me. And thankfully to publishers like Pushkin Press, who work hard to bring previously untranslated works into English, this blog and I can keep going. Which brings me to my latest translated read, The Last Bell, which is a delightful collection of short stories. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/03/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
The first ever English collection of stories by Johannes Urzidil - a friend of Kafka and an unjustly overlooked writer.
A maid who is unexpectedly bequeathed her wealthy employers' worldly possessions when they flee the country after the Nazi occupation; a loyal bank clerk, who steals a Renaissance portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, and falls into troublesome love with her; a middle-aged travel agent, who is perhaps the least well-travelled man in the city and advises his clients from what he has read in books, anxiously awaiting his looming honeymoon; a widowed villager, whose 'magnetic' twelve-year-old daughter witnesses a disturbing event; and a tiny village thrown into civil war by the disappearance of a freshly baked cheesecake. These stories about the tremendous upheaval which results when the ordinary encounters the unexpected are vividly told, with both humour and humanity.
This is the first ever English publication of these both literally and metaphorically Bohemian tales, by one of the great overlooked writers of the twentieth century.
I am continuously astounded by how Anglocentric my literary worldview occasionally still is. I guess studying English Language and Literature didn't do much to help, but I figured growing up bilingually (neither English) would have done something to change that. But I am still surprised to find there are masters of literature waiting for me in other languages, or waiting in translation, rather. Johannes Urzidil is an author I had never heard of, despite writing in one of my native languages, German. Until the release of The Last Bell, his work had never been translated into English. Bilingual himself, Urzidil was a celebrated Czech writer for whom German was his language, never making the transition to English despite spending his last two decades as an immigrant in the United States. His stories, however, are of Prague, that centre of Bohemia in the early 20th century.  His characters are oddities, are "other" in some way and know it, but they are also irrevocably human. Despite being so clearly rooted in his homeland, Urzidil's stories are globally human and will resonate with their modern readers.

The Last Bell contains five stories, selected by David Burnett from a variety of collections written by Urzidil over time. Burnett himself, in his informative introduction, gets to the very point of what makes these stories so touching and what links them together:
'...these stories illustrate this very point: that no one can act or be in this world, without becoming guilty - a very unmodern, biblical notion in our ideal world of transparency and accountability.'
It might not sound very enticing, but I was fascinated by this concept of, perhaps, "guilt by association" which cropped up in each and every story. The collection's first, and eponymous, story 'The Last Bell' is perhaps the finest example. A Czech maid in Nazi-occupied Prague feels burdened by the things she is given or told by others. Whereas she herself hardly acts, except for once, her very presence in the story's situations makes her complicit, makes her guilty, and she does not know how to deal with the weight of this guilt. In 'The Duchess of Albanera' we see a man who cannot face the unintended consequences of a single, mindless thought, whereas the third story, 'Siegelmann's Journeys' gives us a man very aware of and dreading the consequences he will have to face. The final two stories, 'Borderland', probably my favourite in The Last Bell, and 'Where the Valley Ends', Urzidil himself appears in the stories as an unnamed outsider, an objective observer, who sees the unintended victims of other people's actions and beliefs. Although it is perhaps not the most optimistic of messages, it is a very true one. Perhaps in our world we should all be a little bit more aware that none of us are blameless, that we are all in some way guilty. Perhaps it will make us kinder if we learn this lesson.

Urzidil's writing is surprisingly fluid. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but once Burnett's introduction made me aware of Urzidil's links to Kafka I was slightly concerned. Although Kafka is doubtlessly masterful, he is also highly complex. Urzidil's stories are compact and crafted in a way that gives hints but unravels at its own, perfect, pace. His writing, however, flows easily and evocatively. There are moments of absolute beauty in his stories, phrases that are just so true. Let me give you a little gem:
'History books know nothing about real life, least o all about the life of a woman.'
How true. Urzidil doesn't shy away from the darkness in life, but also lingers in those moments of beauty that life bestows upon us. Especially in 'Borderland' he describes Czech woodlands in such a beautiful way I want to book tickets to Prague right now. Burnett does a wonderful job at translating his work into English, capturing both the preciseness and tentativeness of Urzidil's language. I am incredibly grateful to Pushkin Press for casting light upon another author who deserves to be known. I will definitely be looking for his work in German as well, however.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Whereas usually I need a break between stories, Urzidil's The Last Bell flowed so easily from one story to the next that I couldn't help but be spellbound until I had finished the collection. His stories are odes to the Prague he left behind, but are also truly human stories. I'd recommend this to fans of short stories and European literature.

Review: 'Rawblood' by Catriona Ward

Sometimes I just want to smack myself across the face for not reading a certain book earlier. Last week was another one of those occasions as I found myself falling in love with Catriona Ward's Rawblood. This particular novel had been waiting for me on my Kindle SINCE 2015!! I know, this is not okay and I sincerely apologize to the literary gods. But now that I finally got around to it I can also finally tell you just how amazing I thought it was. Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 24/09/2015
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
 She comes in the night.She looks into your eyes.One by one, she has taken us all. 
In 1910, eleven-year-old Iris Villarca lives with her father at Rawblood, a lonely house on Dartmoor. Iris and her father are the last of their name. The Villarcas always die young, bloodily. Iris believes it's because of a congenital disease which means she must isolate herself from the world. But one sunlit autumn day, beside her mother's grave, she forces the truth from her father: the disease is biologically impossible. A lie, to cover a darker secret. 
The Villarcas are haunted, through the generations, by her. She is white, skeletal, covered with scars. When a Villarca marries, when they love, when they have a child - she comes and death follows. When Iris is fifteen, she breaks her promise to remain alone all her life, and the consequences are immediate and horrific.
Where to begin? Some novels are easy to review. They stick to a single genre, have a relatively straightforward plot and don't veer too far from the expected. This doesn't mean they aren't great books, they are frequently brilliant, but they make my job a lot easier. And then there are novels like Rawblood which make it both difficult and challenging. Once I finished it I tried to tell my housemate about it but I didn't even know what to lead with. Rawblood is many things. It's a historical fiction novel and it's Gothic horror story. It's about a girl but it's also about a family. It's full of evil and guilt, but filled with love. Ward set herself up for a major challenge with this story but somehow manages to bring all these different themes together into one stunning narrative. It is not often that a novel can make you feel such a variety of different emotions, but with each different theme Ward interweaves into her tale, I found myself affected in a different way. I found myself yearning for love, burning with a desire for knowledge, horrified by the cruelty of people, filled with fear at ancient evil, and more.

At the heart of Rawblood is Iris and her relationship with her family mansion, the eponymous Rawblood. Living in the early 20th century, she lives a reclusive and sheltered existence with her father, believing she suffers from a congenital disease. However, something much more sinister is at work in Rawblood. Ward tells the story of Iris' family in a non-chronological order, hopping back and forth to different family members and different times. There is a 19th century doctor fascinated with the qualities of blood, a quiet heiress who knows she is always on the verge of death, a soldier witnessing the horrors of World War I, a young woman with powers close to the supernatural... there are so many characters whose lives come together to form the story of Rawblood, both the mansion and the novel. Each character is fascinating and allows Ward to explore different moments in time. She can address war, gender, medicine, love, class, all the topics that make for great stories. A lesser author would have eventually lost the thread of their own novel, but Ward masterfully binds all these characters together and makes their stories crucial to that of Iris. You will have to pay attention to follow all the different things Ward throws at you, but she rewards that attention and dedication at every turn.

At the end of Rawblood I sat in silence for a good hour, thinking. The curse of Rawblood is she, a strange malevolent woman who has haunted the bloodlines coming together in Iris for generations. The moment the Villarcas love, death finds them. Rawblood could have been a straightforward horror story that terrifies but doesn't chill you down to the bone. It does, however, chill you. I found myself thinking a lot about humanity and love after finishing this novel. What is it about love that also brings out the worst in us? We do terrible things in the name of love and especially when we are disappointed in love. Family is the perfect vehicle through which to explore this and Ward consistently manages to make (almost) everyone's actions seem understandable. At the end, Rawblood had me in tears with the emotions Ward was bringing to the table. This mix of love and hate, life and death, is incredibly potent and allows Rawblood to pack an incredible punch.

It's not very difficult to blow me away with amazing writing, but I always find myself extra stunned when I realise a novel is a debut novel. Rawblood is Catriona Ward's first novel, but her writing is incredibly confident and commands attention. She captures the voices of each of her characters, whether it's 11-year old Iris or a WWI soldier. Ward also manages to capture the way an inner voice speaks. Now, stay with me here for a second. There is a way in which your thoughts work, how your mind jumps around, how it speaks to you in phrases rather than complete sentences. Ward captures that, the fractured nature of the mind, not just in the fractured way she tells her story but also in how she relates her characters' stories to us. I can't entirely explain it, but once I got used to it I found it utterly breathtaking. As said above, I kept fearing she would lose the plot, that the novel would derail somehow, and yet it never did. There are so many twists and turns, moments that make you go 'No way!', and yet it all clicks into place perfectly.  I can't wait to read Rawblood again because I know I'll get something different and new from how it all comes together.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

Yup, I love Rawblood! From the first chapter, Ward completely captivated me and even when I wasn't reading I was thinking about her novel. Rawblood was an emotional roller coaster, giving you everything and then making you sit there while it all gets taken away again. Rawblood is much more than a horror story and I can't recommend it enough! 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: 'Ghachar Ghochar' by Vivek Shanbhag, trans. by Srinath Perur

Ever had that moment where you read a book you love, translated from a language you didn't even realise existed until you picked up the book? Yeah, neither had I, until Ghachar Ghochar, that is. I will never stop being intensely grateful to publishers who put their money into bringing popular works from other languages into English. There has been a steady flow of English books into the rest of the world for decades, yet the other way around the flow is only increasing slowly. Still, I'm grateful for every translated book that finds its way to me. Thanks to Faber & Faber and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/04/2017
Publisher: Faber & Faber
A novel of Chekhovian precision and lingering resonance which has all the signs of a contemporary cult classic. 
In this masterful novel by the acclaimed Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, a close-knit family is delivered from near-destitution to sudden wealth after the narrator's uncle founds a successful spice company. 
As the narrator - a sensitive young man who is never named - along with his sister, his parents, and his uncle move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house and encounter newfound wealth, the family dynamics begin to shift. Allegiances and desires realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Their world becomes 'ghachar ghochar' - a nonsense phrase that, to the narrator, comes to mean something entangled beyond repair. 
Told in clean, urgent prose, and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humour, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings - and consequences - of financial gain in contemporary India.
Family... you can't live with them, you can't live without them. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been dedicated to describing families all over the world. The misery, especially, of family has found itself a very popular topic. As Tolstoy wrote:
'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'
Each unhappy family has a tale, especially those families who don't know or deny that they are unhappy. Told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar unravels a tight-knit family before its reader's eyes. Perhaps unravel is the wrong word, since they seem more tightly and more frighteningly knit together by the end, yet there is also the sense that something has broken, something has changed that will change everything. It's that strange feeling at the end of a big family gathering where there's been a fight yet everyone is pretending they didn't choose sides and didn't cut ties. In that sense Shanbhag's title, a made up phrase, is central to the novel and, to the reader, both new and recognizable. It only rarely happens I find a word or a phrase in a novel that immediately rings true in the way 'ghachar ghochar' did. Similarly, it happens infrequently that a novel itself hits the nail on the head quite as succinctly and successfully as Ghachar Ghochar does.

Clocking in at just over a 100 pages, Ghachar Ghochar is a very short novel, but it packs quite a punch. And for its limited amount of pages, it is surprising just how much Vivek Shanbhag manages to incorporate into his novel. First and foremost there is family, the thing you owe everything to and that haunts you throughout your life. It comes with endless possibilities but also endless responsibilities. Then there is the concept of wealth, as the narrator's family moves from 'not quite poor' to 'rather rich' during his early teenage years. The closeness that helped them survive near poverty becomes something almost menacing once money is no longer a problem. Money becomes another string that inevitably ties them closer, while also standing between them and forcing them into roles that don't suit them. Ghachar Ghochar also gives us love, morality, values, gender roles, all addressed the way someone would while thinking over their life while sitting over a cup of coffee. And this is exactly how our novel starts, with the narrator thinking, pondering and wondering. It is an age old question; how did we get here? Shanbhag addresses the question in a fascinating way and I raced through the novel, taken in by his descriptions of family life, of fear and love, pretending not to know when deep down you know.

I love reading books from other countries, other cultures. It's the whole reason I started this blog, to broaden my horizons and learn. And I have found countless of foreign literature  gems that have added immensely both to my literary and emotional vocabulary. Ghachar Gohchar is one of those gems, originally written in Kannada, a language spoken predominantly in southwestern India. Not only does its title give me a phrase for that uncomfortably tied up, knotted up, lost feeling, it also sharply and viscerally dissects family life in a way I hadn't seen before. Shanbhag doesn't make it easy for his reader to see through his characters, he doesn't splay them wide open for us to gawp and gaze. Rather, he opens a door here or there into a character's mind, lets a light linger just long enough to cast an uncomfortable shadow across a character's features. The prose is crisp and to the point, there is no need for long or flourishing descriptions when you can deliver them as precisely and clearly as Shanbhag can. By the end of Ghachar Ghochar you feel you know his characters, deep down, perhaps even better than they know themselves. Srinath Perur, himself an author, does a brilliant job at translating Sjhanbhag's meaningful but restrained prose into English. There is not a single superfluous word in Ghachar Ghochar.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Ghachar Ghochar is a quick and insightful read into family, love and so much more. It is only an afternoon in someone's life, and yet it is their entire life. This novel is a vivisection of everything that family can mean. I will definitely be looking to read hopefully upcoming translations of Shanbhag's work. I'd recommend this to fans of contemporary fiction and Indian literature.

Review: 'Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941-44' by Robert Forczyk

Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941–44Occasionally the time comes when a good non-fiction book is needed. Although I love reading fiction, I often find myself craving something "real", something tangible, and that is when I reach for history books. I am fascinated by our world and everything that has occurred in it so far and love learning more, both about my own history and that of other countries and cultures. Being half-German, I have always considered it my duty to learn about the World Wars and to let them not be forgotten or cast aside. However, in such gigantic historic events, often stories are left behind, and the fierce battles over the Crimea is one of those stories. I am incredibly grateful to have had a chance to read this book and fill a gap in my knowledge. Thanks to Osprey Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/09/2014
Pulisher: Osprey Publishing

Nazi and Soviet armies fought over the Crimean Peninsula for three long years using sieges, dozens of amphibious landings, and large scale maneuvers. This definitive English-language work on the savage battle for the Crimea, Where the Iron Crosses Grow sheds new light on this vital aspect of the Eastern Front. 
The Crimea was one of the crucibles of the war on the Eastern Front, where first a Soviet and then a German army were surrounded, fought desperate battles and were eventually destroyed. The fighting in the region was unusual for the Eastern Front in many ways, in that naval supply, amphibious landings and naval evacuation played major roles, while both sides were also conducting ethnic cleansing as part of their strategy - the Germans eliminating the Jews and the Soviets to purging the region of Tartars.
From 1941, when the first Soviets first created the Sevastopol fortified region, the Crimea was a focal point of the war in the East. German forces under the noted commander Manstein conquered the area in 1941-42, which was followed by two years of brutal colonization and occupation before the Soviet counteroffensive in 1944 destroyed the German 17th Army. 
I originally requested this book back in 2014 when the Crimea had been brought to the front of the stage due to Russia's landgrab. Up until then, the Crime had been something of a blank for me. I had heard of it but probably wouldn't have been able to very accurately pinpoint it on a map. I felt very deeply, however, Russia's desire to own Crimea, the outrage about this in Ukraine and the major cultural and ethnic divisions that showed themselves in the Crimea. Where the Iron Crosses Grow was the perfect read to dig further into this small peninsula that, for a while, was thought to be the birth place for a second Cold War. Forczyk's book is meticulously researched, whether it's intimate contemporary anecdotes or the precise movements of different battalions. As with many way history books, the numbers and dates are so plentiful they make you dizzy, but Forczyk does his best to bring order to the chaos. Russian military groups are named in English, whereas German ranks are referred to in German, making the small difference between "the infantry" and "the infanterie" something of a lifesaver. For those more used to reading these sorts of history books, the plentiful references to different sorts of canons, air crafts and battleships will be more familiar, but as a relative novice I frequently became a bit overwhelmed by it. Forczyk attempts, though difficult it might be considering his subject matter, to let the reader breathe by interspersing the recounting of battles with aside descriptions of relevant history or persons.

Where the Iron Crosses Grow focuses mainly on the years 1941 to 1944, the very height of the Second World War, but Forczyk is also conscious of the need for background information. Starting in the 18th century, he details the history of the Crimea, its Tatar origins and its initial position as a power base. He also goes into its role during the war between the Whites and the Reds after the October Revolution in 1917 and slowly leads up to the beginning of the Second World War. By doing so, he is able to set up a number of links which only become relevant later on. The clearest example of this is his mention of the OZET, the Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land, set up between 1925-38, which created tensions between the resettled Jews and the local Crimean population which felt its land was being taken away. This tension survived until the German occupation in 1943 when it had disastrous consequences for the Jewish Crimeans. This linking back and forth between different time periods really adds to a reader's awareness of how tightly linked these different historical periods truly are. The main chunk of the book is dedicated to the three years of intense fighting that occurred in the Crimea, chronicling the waves of invasions that washed over the Crimea, first the German invasion in 1941-42, which finds many comparisons to the invasion of the Red Army, and then the Russian "liberation" in 1943-44. The hundreds of thousands of lives lost on both sides, the countless rounds of ammunition spent, the indescribable wreckage that was left behind, Forczyk finds a way to describe these in a way that allows both the horror of it to seep in, while also not wallowing in it for the sake of sensationalism. In between the two invasions, he also describes the terror of the ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, as well as the Soviet's very own cleansing after WWII. In a way, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is a horrible book to read, but ignoring this suffering would just be another injustice done to the Crimea.

The final chapter of the book, and its shortest, is a musing on the events of 2014, fresh when the book was written. I can't help but quote one of the final paragraphs of the book here:
"Despite the fact that competing efforts to gain control over the Crimea have yielded negligible strategic benefit to anyone for the past century, the idea that owning the Crimea is worth shedding copious amounts of blood and oppressing others for is going to retain ideological saliency for some time."
Perhaps the key thing that Where the Iron Crosses Grow taught me is that the Crimea has become a symbol. Holding it suggests power, the power over the Black Sea, the power over the Ukraine, the power to cross the border between East and West. While owning it now really does hold almost no strategical benefits, it means something bigger. It's why Hitler wanted to drive through the streets of defeated Paris, why Napoleon insisted on trying to conquer Russia, why the British Empire but the Koh-I-Noor diamond in the crown of its royals. It's an act that suggest primacy over others, and that is what despots send soldiers to their deaths for. As said, reading Where the Iron Crosses Grow, or any book on the world's long history of wars, makes you despair at humanity and at what it is willing to do to itself. But I firmly believe that learning your history is the first step in preventing it from repeating itself.

Forczyk, throughout Where the Iron Crosses Grow, consistently manages to keep the reader engaged. This sounds like it should be a given, but whereas a fiction author can use all their imaginative faculties to keep the reader happy, a history writer has facts he has to stick to. And a war historian usually has pretty grim facts as well as occasionally boring statistics he needs to convey. For someone like me, who is mainly interested in cultural history, the recounting of a battle, the shifting of fronts, the number of cannon balls fired, etc. is not always thrilling, and there were times in Where the Iron Crosses Grow that Forczyk lost me  a little. However, as said above, he himself seems very aware of this likelihood and attempts to intersperse history with as many asides as possible. I found it fascinating to learn about a German general who could only serve in the Crimea because he had been personally "pardoned" by Hitler for being of Jewish descent, or of a young Crimean girl joining the partisans. He doesn't lose himself in the numbers, doesn't lose track of the overall picture and tries his hardest to make it understandable to a novice like myself.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

For those interested in the Crimea and its WWII history, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is the perfect read. Incredibly well-researched and written, this book will give its readers a brilliant oversight, as well as an empathic insight, into the battles fought and the lives lost on this peninsula. I'd recommend this to those interested in the history of WWII and non-fiction.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Review: 'White Fur' by Jardine Libaire

White FurThere are novels that are predictable, in the sense that you know exactly what you'll get out of them. I think of these novels as 'Hallmark-books'. You can't help but love them because they give you exactly what you need, but you'll also never be truly surprised by them. Then there are also novels that you go into with certain expectations, but that shatter those expectations within a few chapters. White Fur, for me, is the latter type of novel. I thought I knew what I was going to get and I was incredibly wrong. Thanks to Crown Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/05/2017
Publisher: Crown Publishing; Hogarth

A stunning star-crossed love story set against the glitz and grit of 1980s New York City  
When Elise Perez meets Jamey Hyde on a desolate winter afternoon, fate implodes, and neither of their lives will ever be the same. Although they are next-door neighbors in New Haven, they come from different worlds. Elise grew up in a housing project without a father and didn’t graduate from high school; Jamey is a junior at Yale, heir to a private investment bank fortune and beholden to high family expectations. Nevertheless, the attraction is instant, and what starts out as sexual obsession turns into something greater, stranger, and impossible to ignore. 
The unlikely couple moves to Manhattan in hopes of forging an adult life together, but Jamey’s family intervenes in desperation, and the consequences of staying together are suddenly severe. And when a night out with old friends takes a shocking turn, Jamey and Elise find themselves fighting not just for their love, but also for their lives.  White Fur follows these indelible characters on their wild race through Newport mansions and downtown NYC nightspots, SoHo bars and WASP-establishment yacht clubs, through bedrooms and hospital rooms, as they explore, love, play, and suffer. Jardine Libaire combines the electricity of Less Than Zero with the timeless intensity of Romeo and Juliet in this searing, gorgeously written novel that perfectly captures the ferocity of young love.
White Fur grabbed me by the throat a lot quicker than I expected it to. Initially, upon reading the blurb, I was expecting a relatively straightforward, Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about the rich boy and the girl from the block whose love would defeat the class system with one fell swoop. I thought White Fur might be a breezy read. That is not at all what Jardine Libaire delivers. On the one hand it does deliver that "star-crossed love story", as the blurb so dramatically puts it. It does so explicitly, keeping no secrets from its readers as to the delight and the hardship of love. Writing humorously about humour is notoriously difficult, but I find that writing about love in a way that makes you want to love is equally as challenging. White Fur makes love something almost illicit, the thing we all secretly crave deep down but feel too ashamed to actually ask for. So we grab at it when we can, take in lungfuls and then scurry away again. Reading White Fur brings up a lot of emotions. You'll feel anger at the world, disappointment in people, understanding for their faults, a lust for love and life. White Fur, if you go into it with an open mind, will give you all of this and more.

Class is something I overlooked for a very long time, the ability to do so a privilege that comes from being a middle-class white girl. I thought the main struggles of our time were race and feminism, not realising that this triad of social constructs, race, gender and class, are intrinsically bound together, especially for those who draw the short straw in all three categories. I was aware that I was born lucky, yet the actual knowledge of it only occasionally truly sinks in. Reading White Fur was one of the moments in which it was once again brought to the forefront of my mind. On the one hand the story is relatively simple. Elise is a bi-racial young woman in the 1980s, trying to leave behind her the suffering and drug-abuse that is passed down the generations in the housing projects where she grew up. Jamey is a son of money, heir to an empire he has come to despise. Libaire adeptly shows both of their disillusionment with the world in its own way, drawing both stark contrasts between them as well as showing the connections they share. They attempt to reshape the world as a place in which they can exist and although the obstacles are occasionally overblown, they are also realistic. Libaire manages to describe both Elise and Jamey's, although especially Elise's, struggles in a visceral way that will stick with you.

Sometimes a novel's language can be too flowery. An author will lose themselves in their metaphors and the story sinks away, covered by too much language.  Not every author can write in prose that flows so forcefully. In White Fur, however, it works. Jardine Libaire tells her story chronologically, except for a small teaser of the end at the beginning, but not in a straight-forward manner. Her prose moves in a way rapid rivers do, hurtling on, but also calming down, swirling violently and flowing quietly. Feelings cannot be described literally, I find, and so authors find their way around it. Libaire does it by describing small acts, sights, smells, snapshots of life, the noticing and appreciating of which says much more about her characters than page-long internal monologues. Occasionally the plot takes off in a slightly cliche direction, but Libaire manages these detours relatively well. In a way, White Fur does feel like something of a fairy tale, a dramatic play we hope ends well despite our secret fears. But it's a fairy tale of our life time, with real life horrors and real life dreams.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored White Fur, it sucked me in almost straightaway and didn't let me go until the last page. Especially Elise's story affected me a lot and after finishing the novel I miss her, in a way. I'll definitely be rereading this one. I'd recommend White Fur to fans of contemporary fiction.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review: 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier

RebeccaSo I am currently struck down with a corneal ulceration, i.e. my eye is messed up and for a good two weeks I wasn't really allowed anywhere near screens or anything else that might stress my eye, like books. It was a terrible time, but I'm recovering slowly but surely and I've decided it is absolutely fine for me to go back to blogging now. Since I wasn't allowed to read, I resorted to audio books, something I loved as a child but cast aside the moment I was able to read myself. Blindly browsing on Youtube (yes, Youtuce), I found an audio book of Rebecca and decided to give it a try. My eyes were tired but my brain was ready to be amazed. And so I closed my eyes and went to Manderley.

Original Pub. Date: 1938
Original Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives--presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

I adored the works by du Maurier that I read previously, like My Cousin Rachel and The Birds and other Stories. However, something about Rebecca always put me slightly off. For some reason it felt like a stuffy novel to me, one that would be long and dry and antiquated. Perhaps I got this feeling because of the Hitchcock film, one I appreciated for its artistry but didn't necessarily feel very taken in by. I couldn't even really remember most of the plot, but I knew a house featured very heavily. So I went into this novel with some low-key prejudices, which evaporated during the first chapter. Rebecca is a stunning novel, fresh, easy and perceptive. The novel unfolds in a way I have come to recognise as distinctive for du Maurier. She builds up a straight-forward narrative which seems as normal as could be, but chapter upon chapter she introduces the uncanny, the mysterious and the supernatural until the reader doesn't trust a single word. It is no surprise she is still one of the most successful female authors of all time.

du Maurier's unnamed protagonist is an amazing character. Sometimes it doesn't work, not naming your protagonist, it alienates your character from the reader, making them feel more distant than you wish. For du Maurier, however, it works brilliantly. She allows her protagonist to be vulnerable and soft, afraid and brave, and her relative blankness makes her the perfect canvas for the reader's own dreams and fears. Her openness is incredibly affecting, it makes you want to befriend her and protect her, but it is also like looking into a mirror as a modern woman. Her fear that she is not good enough, that there is a perfect standard she should strive for and that everyone is secretly disappointed in her, is incredibly recognizable. Much of du Maurier's protagonist's sense of pressure is imagined, no one wants her to be like Rebecca, and that is where du Maurier shows just how perceptive she is. In the form of 'the first Mirs. de Winter', Rebecca personifies that hill so many women face even today. There are so many things we feel we need to be, standards we need to live up to and our constant fear of failing some secret test means we never speak out against the pressure we feel. It is a constant struggle that is not even truly resolved in the novel, and is also far from being resolved in real life. But reading a novel like this helps figuring out where you stand in the world.

Although I did listen to Rebecca as an audio book, I still got a great sense of du Maurier's writing style. If I could copy any author's writing style it would probably be du Maurier's. She makes writing seem easy, belying just how much work her words do. Her descriptions of Manderley and its surrounding nature are incredibly evocative, making the landscape come to life in a way that's tangible. du Maurier's characters, except for her protagonist, are explored in a way that feels realistic. Rather than giving us occasional insights into their minds, she lets their actions speak for them. It is no surprise her protagonist finds it hard to read their feelings, and for much of the novel the reader is completely on her side when it comes to interpreting them. In reality we can't read other's minds either, and this approach makes Rebecca feel very true to life. And then there is the suspense and the mystery, which is palpable. Since the novel is so calm and the pace so sedate, everything slightly uncanny has a chilling effect. Also, a quick shout out to the audio book reader, Margaret Darling, who was absolutely brilliant! She hit the perfect tone, creating different voices for the characters and utterly transporting me. God, I can't wait for my eye to heal so I can actually read Rebecca and

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I adored Rebecca. It is a stunning book, a great insight into a young woman's mind and the struggles she faces in growing up, but it also never forgets to be terrifying. The plot twists and turns, continuously throwing new surprises at the reader and never quite going where you expect it. I'd recommend this to fans of Suspense and Women's Fiction.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund

I love wolves, and that was the first thing that drew me to History of Wolves. Although Emily Fridlund's novel doesn't actually centre around wolves, what attracts me to them is what also ended up tying me to the novel. This is also one of those novels who is done a slight disservice by a book's need for a blurb. I wrestled over whether to include one or not and decided yes, in the end, but truly there is much more to this book than could be encapsulated in a paragraph or two. Despite this, I will attempt to write down my own thoughts in the few paragraphs below. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/01/2017
Publisher: Grove Atlantic

Fourteen-year-old Madeline lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Madeline is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Madeline as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong. 
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Madeline finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Madeline makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Madeline confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.
As I said above, it is difficult, and sometimes close to impossible, to describe certain books. On the one hand History of Wolves is a novel about a young girl growing up, on the other hand it is a novel about the crimes we commit against one another. But you'll need more than two hands to describe this novel, because it's also about emotional isolation, trauma, Christian Science, and so much more. Set in the isolated regions of northern Minnesota, History of Wolves is Madeline's attempt at sorting out her past, present and future. The little decisions we all make daily can have a major impact and that terrifying fact is what History of Wolves dissects. It doesn't always make for a comfortable read, just like Madeline isn't always a likeable main character. But then, no one is perfect and that is the crux of the matter. The discovery of self and the changing of the self is a theme many novels have dedicated themselves to, but not many manage to capture all its facets. History of Wolves is at times beautiful, haunting, terrifying and intense, just like life.

Running through the novel is the theme of wolves, of hunters and prey, strength and weakness. Each of these expresses itself differently. Madline is a predator in her own way, involving herself in the lives of others, stalking them and looking for signs of emotion and warmth. Similarly, Mr. Grierson and many other characters in the book are both incredibly in the wrong and yet sympathetic in how they themselves are victims in one way or another. It makes for a difficult read because we'd all like to rather see the world in black and white, with clear cut heroes and villains, and a morality without questions. History of Wolves is also a novel about love and warmth, about how desperately we humans crave closeness and affection, and will look for it from whichever source, even if we know it's the wrong source. There is also a sense in which the anger we show to others comes back to ourselves. We try to paint them as the aggressors, yet have to face we ourselves are also both victim and aggressor. I like books that come too close for comfort, it makes me face myself, but it's not for everyone. And some days it isn't even for me.

The timeline of History of Wolves jumps around a lot. Seemingly written in hindsight, Fridlund repeatedly takes you back to Madeline's teenage years, before yanking you on to her early childhood, and then onward to her mid-twenties. On the one hand this can get confusing, yet on the other hand it also captures very accurately how memories work. They are disjointed, bring together stories that seem utterly random yet are strangely connected, and throw a fog over the parts of our lives we'd rather forget. It creates a strange atmosphere in the novel which makes it seem slightly detached, and this spreads also to the characters. Although everyone is living, hardly any seem really alive, only going through the motions of every day. This even finds its reflection in the names of the characters. Madeline is referred to as Linda, Madeline and Mattie, occasionally making you question if we truly still are reading about the same girl. And I guess the question is, are we? Do things happen to us that change us irrevocably as people, that disconnect us from who we were before? And what do we do when we find ourselves isolated from our past? History of Wolves throws up a lot of questions and leaves them hanging for you to answer for yourself.

Fridlund's writing is stunning. I adored her descriptions of Minnesota's landscape, how she captures the changing seasons, the vitality of nature and the sheer power of it all. Nature becomes almost like a character in History of Wolves, affecting the characters as much as they do each other. Fridlund also manages to make much explicit without spelling it out. Especially when it comes to her characters' emotions and thoughts, Fridlund gives the smallest motion meaning. Without delving too deeply into Madeline's time at the commune, we can guess at the impact this has had on her. Although Fridlund doesn't spend a lot of time at Madeline's high school, we can tell it's not the best of places for her. I was continuously amazed at how much Fridlund managed to pack into History of Wolves. Although occasionally the narrative perhaps strays a bit, Fridlund always manages to reign it back in. By staying true to Madeline's voice, she doesn't follow every story to its full completion as it loses its relevance to her, yet the novel is filled with stories and moments and observations. The fact History of Wolves is Fridlund's debut novel makes it all the more impressive and personally I cannot wait to read her next book.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

History of Wolves is a stunning novel which I will definitely be rereading numerous times. Although not perfect, there is so much to admire in Fridlund's novel that the occasional confusion is all but forgotten. History of Wolves is a novel to get lost in and a novel in which you have to try to find yourself nonetheless. I'd recommend this to fans of literary fiction and coming-of-age novels.