Review: The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde

My Review:
Godwits flyThis is the latest release from Persephone Press whose classic fiction I adore.  This book is unlike any other I have read from their catalog so far.  The entire time I was reading it I felt as if I were in the midst of a dream with lots of sounds and imagines, some vivid and some out-of-focus.  And the dialogue was sparse and poetic, sometimes difficult to understand.  The main character, a girl named Eliza, is an aspiring poet from a very tender age so it is no wonder that the author chose such a lyrical style for her novel.

Eliza and the other Hannays, her sisters Carly and Sandra, her brother Kitch and her parents have a somewhat nomadic life in Wellington, Australia.  Eliza’s father has a job as a office clerk on which salary he struggles to support his family of six.  They move from one cheap rental house to another and it is thanks to his wife, Augusta that their budget is stretched so far.  Augusta is an economical cook and sews clothes for her children who are always well-dressed and tidy.  The first part of the book is Eliza’s memories from the various houses and neighborhoods in which they have lived.

From the beginning we understand that the Hannay family does not get along well with one another.  Mr. and Mrs. Hannay are always fighting and one wonders how they ever got together and got married in the first place.  Mr. Hannay fancies himself a socialist and is always reading books on the subject and dragging home his seedy friends.  He appears to have little affection for or understanding of his wife and his children.  All of this behavior irritates Mrs. Hannay whose main concern is caring for her family and keeping the house clean.  She dreams of someday moving to her beloved England but as the story goes on it is evident that this is not an achievable dream for a poor woman with four children.

Much of the prose in the book is focused on capturing the details of the settings.  For example, in chapter nine, entitled “Reflections in the Water” is centered around Eliza’s birthday and the family celebrates by having a picnic and a swim at Day’s Bay.  The chapter opens with a vivid description of the people standing on the dock and boarding the boat to sail out to Day’s Bay.  Hyde writes, “Day’s Bay sand is smooth and warm, honeycombed with tiny airholes in which the blue crabs hide.”  I could feel the press of people, the heat and I could smell the water and the summer as I was reading the descriptive passages in this chapter.  The story continues to describe the beach and the picnic and although there is little in the chapter that advances the story we get another glimpse into the life of this family.

As Eliza and her sister Carly get older I was expecting that a man would catch their attention and there would be multiple weddings in the book.  But the hold that the Hannay family has on both of them doesn’t loosen its grip for anything, not even a man.  Carly is engaged for a while and she then tries her hand at becoming a nurse, but the connection with her mother pulls her right back home.  Eliza falls in love with a man named Timothy who is one of the socialists that her father brings home.  She has a lot in common with him and they like to discuss books but it seems that Timothy is a free spirit; although he loves Eliza, the pull of traveling and exploring the world is greater than his love for her.

Timothy does write letters to Eliza and even wanders back to her in Wellington from time to time but this is more of a torment to her than anything else.  She has a love affair with an older man in order to try to forget Timothy, but this episode in her life has long-term and hurtful consequences for her.  The only positive that comes out of her lost loves is that she is inspired more than ever to write poetry.

For those who love poetry, The Godwits Fly is a must-read.  Eliza reads and memorizes poems which she is fond of reciting from a young age.  She also writes a fair amount of her own poetry and she calls her gift for writing simply, “it.”  When tragedy strikes,  her gift for poetry suddenly returns: “She felt neither happy nor unhappy. merely still as the nurse moved about the room.  When she was alone, words ran in her mind, measured themselves, a steady chain of which no link was weak enough to break.  Long ago, she called the power ‘it’.”  Eliza is able to find comfort and solace in her art, but this book doesn’t have a particularly happy ending for any members of the Hannay family.  It serves as a stark reminder that growing up female in the mid-twentieth century was a struggle.

Please visit Persephone Books for more information on this title: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/the-godwits-fly.html

About the Author:
Robin HydeIris Wilkinson (1906-39), who wrote as Robin Hyde, is one of New Zealand’s major writers.  Brought up in Wellington (her father was English and her mother Australian), she was encouraged to write poetry. At 17 she began work as a newspaper journalist. Hospitalised after a serious knee injury, she later gave birth to two illegitimate children – the first died, but her son, Derek Challis b. 1930, was fostered (and would wrote her biography in 2004). Despite two breakdowns, she continued to work ferociously hard, notably during 1934-5 at Auckland Mental Hospital when she wrote half of her total output; here she began her autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly (1938) describing ‘Eliza’ up to the age of 21. During the 1930s Robin Hyde published a total of ten books – five novels, poetry (inc. Persephone in Winter, 1937) a travel book and journalism.  She travelled to China in 1938, made it to England, but killed herself in Notting Hill Gate a week before the outbreak of war.

5 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Persephone Books

Review: Blitz by David Trueba

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Other Press.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Mara Faye Lethem.  This is yet another contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard.  A special thanks to the both of them for hosting this literary event.

My Review:
BlitzBeto is a landscape architect who, like many others, has been hit hard by the economic recession in Europe.  Building and maintaining elaborate gardens and parks is a luxury that businesses and municipalities can no longer afford.  In order to make some money to pay the bills, Beto enters a landscape architecture contest in Munich, where the first prize would be enough to keep him afloat for a while.  Beto and his girlfriend, Marta who is also his assistant and partner in his landscape business, both travel to Munich to attend the landscape conference where the prize winners will be announced.

Beto is having a good time in Munich speaking with other architects and listening to their ideas and proposals.  But one night at dinner Beto receives a text message from Marta that clearly wasn’t meant for him.  He says, “Life changes when the love messages aren’t for you. That love message arrived like a lightning bolt, unespected and electric, and changed my life.”  When he confronts Marta about the message, she admits it was meant for her ex-boyfriend with whom she has reconnected and she announces that she leaving Beto to go back to her ex.

Beto’s reaction to this awful news is one of denial and inertia;  he doesn’t want to face his life again in Barcelona where he lives and works with Marta.  He impulsively decides to stay behind in Munich even though he has no money and is about to be thrown out of his hotel room.  Helga, who was serving as a translator for Beto at the landscape conference, steps in and saves Beto in more ways than one.  Helga, at age sixty-two, is about thirty years older than Beto and her offer of help appears to be a natural,  maternal gesture.  Helga takes Beto back to her apartment in Munich and over a bottle of vodka Beto learns that Helga has been divorced for fifteen years and has lived alone ever since.  Throughout the course of their conversation Beto is surprised to discover that he has become very attracted to Helga and he wants to kiss her.

Beto and Helga spend the night together and do much more than kiss.  Trueba offers a brutally honest and at times graphic commentary on the realities of aging.  Helga has sagging skin and wrinkles and Beto is ashamed that he is attracted to this woman who is so different physically and emotionally from Marta.  As they spend time together after their night of passion, Beto feels that he should be embarrassed to be seen with an older woman in a romantic situation and he realizes that this reaction is hurtful to Helga.

Beto has to face reality and say goodbye to Helga and return to the shattered remains of his life in Barcelona.  Their farewell at the airport is awkward because they don’t expect to see each other again despite two nights of emotional and physical intimacy that they shared.  The last part of the book when Beto is back in Spain is narrated like a diary in months.  Beto moves to Madrid and takes a job in a  landscape firm where his career finally takes a positive turn.  But Beto is not successful in finding another woman with whom he wants to be in  a long-term relationship.  The memory and pull of Helga and their unexpected connection always lingers in the back of his mind.

This book is a brutally honest commentary on age and love.  I especially enjoyed the ending which was a bit of a surprise.  Another unique aspect of the book are the pictures that the author includes to illustrate different pieces of the text.  Beto’s idea for his garden that is entered in the Munich competition is illustrated as well as other important scenes from the story.  Trueba’s character-driven story line with it’s straightforward prose is a great read to bring to the beach when it is released this August.

About the Author and Translator:
David TruebaDavid Trueba was born in Madrid in 1969 and has been successful both as a novelist and as a scriptwriter. La buena vida was his widely acclaimed debut as a film director and was followed by Obra Maestra (2001), Soldados de Salamina (2003), Bienvenido a casa (2006), and La silla de Fernando (2007). He is also the author of two previous novels; his debut, Four Friends, sold over 100,000 copies with twenty reprints.  Learning to Lose won the Critics Award in 2009.

Mara Faye Lethem is the translator of Spanish and Catalan authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, Jorge Semprún, and Pablo DeSantis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she has lived in Barcelona since 2003.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendariz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Jonathan Dunne.  Hispabooks specializes in publishing contemporary Spanish books into English translation.  For more information about their titles please visit their website: http://hispabooks.com/

My Review:
Plimsoll LineThe author explains to us in the introduction of the book that the Plimsoll Line is a mark on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be immersed into the water when it is loaded with cargo without being sunk.  In the 18th century, British merchants would overload their cargo, knowing full well that the ships would sink and then they would collect the insurance money on them.  The Plimsoll Line was then marked on all ships to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.  The main character in this book bears so much cargo in the form of tragedy that he wonders if he has overstepped his personal Plimsoll Line and will sink into oblivion.

Gabriel Ariz is a university professor and an art critic who loves working and his job even though he doesn’t have to work for a living.  His wife’s inheritance would allow them to live quite comfortably with a nice custom-built home in the forest and luxury vacations.  Gabriel and his wife’s comfortable world is shattered by the death of their only child, their daughter, who dies at the tender age of twenty in a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve.  This event marks the beginning of a series of misfortunes that weigh heavily on Gabriel.

Before their daughter died, Gabriel and his wife seemed to be drifting further and further apart and this tragedy precipitated the end of their marriage.   When Gabriel’s wife, Ana,  announces that she is leaving he is neither surprised or terribly upset.  But the constant loneliness in his big house with no one but his cat Polanski for company starts to wear on him.  To top it all off, he doesn’t feel well and his doctor diagnoses him with kidney failure.  Because of his illness he is forced to quit his beloved job and go to dialysis three times a week for five hours at a time.  Is this what will sink him below his Plimsoll Line?

One of the hardest parts of the book to read are the very detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s dialysis treatments.  He talks about insertion of tubes and machines and the cleansing of his blood through this process.  I was so uncomfortable when I was reading these passages that I almost skipped over them to spare myself from these graphic scenes.  But then I realized that Armendariz is providing for us the a realistic view of what it means to lose one’s precious grasp on health.  Our health and our well-being is never something we should take for granted.

In addition to Gabriel, the author also gives us different points-of-view throughout the story.  For instance, in order to describe Gabriel and his home the author puts us in the place of an invisible observer whom only the cat can see.  We walk through Gabriel’s house as  if we are getting a private tour of it’s décor, pictures and personal touches.  We are also given the point-of-view of the cat who knows that there is something not-quite-right about his owner who sleeps at strange hours and wanders around the house in his tattered bathrobe.  Polanski’s favorite pastime is keeping Gabriel’s garden free of mole’s.

The most intriguing and the lengthiest point-of-view we are given is Gabriel’s daughter who has been deceased for three years when the story begins.  Gabriel finds a diary that was hidden in the garden and was dug up when there was a tangle between Polanski and a mole.  A large part of the second half of the book includes these diary entries written by Laura.  As Gabriel reads her entries, which were recorded during the last few years of her life, he realizes that he didn’t know his daughter very well at all.  She had struggles, worries and concerns that were typical of a young woman on the verge of adulthood but his relationship with her only existed on the surface.  Laura’s diary also reveals a very shocking detail about her life about which Gabriel and his wife were completely unaware.  I haven’t read a book in a long time with such a shocking twist or revelation in the plot.

Finally, I would like to make one  more comment about the author’s writing style.  I’ve already mentioned the details he gives about Gabriel’s medical treatments, but this style of providing information about minutiae pervades the book.  At times the details seem cumbersome and make the narrative feel as though the author has strayed too far from his plotline.  For example, towards the end of the book Gabriel makes a decision not to commit suicide because he enjoys light too much.  The author goes on for several paragraphs about different types of light we experience.  I think he could have made the same point with fewer examples.

Overall, this is a great book for Spanish Lit month and I would recommend it just for the plot twist revealed in the diary entries.  But the remarkable resilience and strength of character we encounter in Gabriel makes it well-worth the read.

How is everyone else doing with the Spanish Lit month reading?

About the Author:
ArmendarizJuan Gracia Armendáriz (Pamplona, 1965) is a Spanish fiction writer and contributor to many Spanish newspapers. He has also been part-time professor at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, and has many works of literary and documentary research. As a writer, he has published a book of poems, short stories, nonfiction books—biographical sketches and a historical story—and several novels. The Plimsoll Line is part of the “Trilogy of Illness”, formed by three separate books that reflect his experience as a person with kidney trouble. The novel was awarded the X Premio Tiflos de Novela 2008.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spain, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Soft in the Head by Marine-Sabine Roger

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  The book was first published in the original German in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Frank Wynne.

My Review:
Soft in the HeadThis story is told in the first person by a forty-five year old man named Germain who describes himself as being “soft in the head.”  Germain tells us about his current circumstances and his life as well as his childhood and early years.  He vividly describes his experiences in primary school with his teacher, “The strong get off on walking all over other people, and wiping their feet while they’re at it, like you would on a doormat. This is what I learned from my years at school.  It was a hell of a lesson.  All that because of some bastard who didn’t like kids.  Or at least he didn’t like me.  Maybe my life would have been different if I’d had a different teacher.  Who knows?  I’m not saying it’s his fault I’m a moron, I’m pretty sure I was one even before that.  But he made my life a misery.”  I don’t include very many quotes in my reviews, but when I read this part of the book I had tears in my eyes and I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

Germain has been treated like he is a worthless moron his whole life, not only by his cruel teacher, but also by his mother and some of the other kids at school.  Germain tells us that his mother get pregnant when she had a one time tryst with a much older man at a summer carnival.  Germain’s mother was labeled a “slut” and an outcast; she takes out her unwanted pregnancy on her poor son, Germain.  She is never affectionate, kind or motherly to him and she hits him at the slightest provocation.  Although Germain is very forthright about his mother’s treatment of him, he never uses her as an excuse for not accomplishing what he wants to do in life.

Germain does, indeed, carve out for himself a rather happy path in life.  He moves out to the caravan in his mother’s backyard so he doesn’t have to deal with her and argue with her everyday.  He feels autonomous and quite content living in a caravan even though it is rather small.  He spends his days tending his large, bounteous garden, visiting with his friends at the local pub, and spending time with his girlfriend, Annette.  One of his favorite daily activities is spending time in the local park where he counts the pigeons.  It is a chance meeting on one of these outings that has a profound impact on Germain’s life.

While on his usual visit to the park one day Germain meets a small and kind elderly woman named Margueritte.  As they start talking they realize that they both enjoy feeding and counting the pigeons.  Margueritte always has a book with her and one day she decides to start reading it outloud to Germain.  His bad experiences at school have made him hate and dread anything to do with reading.  But Margueritte’s book, The Plague, by Camus captivates Germain and it plants the seed of learning in him like nothing else has before.  Margueritte never treats Germain like a moron so he starts to gain some confidence by asking questions and discussing and reading more books with her.  Germain says, “When people are always cutting you down, you don’t get a chance to grow.”  It is Margueritte who serves at the compassionate and encouraging teacher that Germain has been yearning for all of his life.

This is a great read for those who love books about books.  Germain and Margueritte read several books together as they explore the world of literature.  Margueritte also gives Germain a dictionary which becomes his prize possession.  A good part of the story further describes Germain’s growth in other areas of his life.  His experiences with Margueritte have made him a more compassionate and confident friend and boyfriend.  This book serves as a reminder that each and every day we all have the capacity and the choice  to either cut someone down or build someone up.  I absolutely loved this book and was smitten with Germains story and for this reason I think it should be on everyone’s “must-read” summer book list.

About the Author and Translator:
Roger-Marie-Sabine-NB-Libre-de-droits-Cécile-Roger-copy-e1467216344165-1024x1024Born in Bordeaux in 1957, Marie-Sabine Roger has been writing books for both adults and children since 1989. Soft in the Head was made into a 2010 film, My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gerard Depardieu. Get Well Soon won the Prix des lecteurs de l’Express in 2012 and will be published by Pushkin Press in 2017.

Frank Wynne is an award-winning translator from French and Spanish. He has won the IMPAC Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize. He has translated a number of Spanish and Latin American authors, including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Isabel Allende, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Tomás Gonzalez, whose In the Beginning Was the Sea is published by Pushkin Press .

9 Comments

Filed under France, German Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Clouds by Juan José Saer

I received a review copy of this title from Open Letter via Edelweiss.  This review is my second contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos.  I am also very excited to say that this is the 300th post on my blog.  I have worked hard on all of my reviews for the past two years and thanks to everyone who has visited and supported my modest endeavors.

My Review:
The CloudsThis interesting tale begins in modern day Paris when Pichón Garay receives a disk with the contents of an absurd story about two doctors in 19th century Argentina whose mission it is to cure the mad.  As Garay reads the beginning of the story he learns that no one is sure whether or not this story is pure fiction or has any truth to it.  At times the story seems far fetched and ridiculous, but the ways in which these doctors treat the insane is compassionate and for this reason we hope it’s true.

The narrator of this manuscript is Dr. Real, whose ironic name is a not-so-subtle stroke of genius by Saer. Dr. Real meets his mentor in Europe while in medical school and accepts the position to serve as his assistant while they establish an asylum for the insane in Argentina.  Saer handles the sad plight of the mentally ill in the 19th century with sympathy as he describes their illnesses which are little understood in that time period.  Most of the patients in the hospital are dropped off by the rich and elite who are embarrassed by their mentally ill family members.  It is sad that many of the patients end up with Dr. Real, not because a family wants their loved one to be cured, but because they are fend up and ashamed by the stigma of such an illness.  Saer dwells on the fact that Dr. Real and his mentor employ the kindest possible treatment for these discarded and abandoned patients.

When the clinic is built, Dr. Real is given the task of going to Santa Fe to collect five of the patients that will be treated in the clinic.  The journey from Argentina to Santa Fe is perilous for many reasons and doing it with five very ill patients makes the journey seem absolutely absurd at times.  Saer meticulously describes the symptoms and backgrounds of all five mental patients.  Among them are a nymphomaniac nun who believes she needs to have sex with as many men as possible in order to unite the human with the divine.  There is also an upper class gentlemen who seems well-dressed and charming at first, but after speaking with him for only a few moments Dr. Real discovers this man is severely manic.  There are also three young men, two of which display symptoms of Tourette Syndrome as they repeat certain phrases and noises.  The other is a young man who repeats the same motions with his hands and seems to be suffering with some type of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

The real danger presents itself on the trip back to Argentina when Dr. Real must keep his patients calm while navigating the various treacheries of the plains.  When they set out it is winter and the constant cold and damp makes everyone miserable.  They must constantly alter their course to avoid the flooding river and the constant threat of hostile Indians.  The nun is someone that Dr. Real has a particular time controlling because she is successful at seducing the military troops who are supposed to be guarding the caravan.  By the end of the journey the nun is the best guarded person in the caravan as the soldiers rarely leave her side.

The Clouds showcases Saer’s genius of  describing vivid landscapes.  We feel cold when the winter sets in, damp when the rivers flood and terrified when a fire threatens the caravan.  Dr. Real is reading Vergil’s Aeneid during his journey which epic could not be more appropriate for his excursion.  The comparisons between Dr. Real and Aeneas are endless as I thought about both stories.  But on the most basic level, Aeneas is the perfect hero and role model for Dr. Real who is attempting his own dangerous and seemingly impossible trek across a harsh landscape.

This is the second work I have read of Saer’s and I was captivated by his storylines and his prose in both.  I cannot recommend this author highly enough.

About the Author:
SaerJuan José Saer was one of the most important Argentine novelists of the last fifty years.  Born to Syrian immigrants in Serodino, a small town in the Santa Fe Province, he studied law and philosophy at the National University of the Littoral, where he taught History of Cinematography. Thanks to a scholarship, he moved to Paris in 1968. He had recently retired from his position as a lecturer at the University of Rennes, and had almost finished his final novel, La Grande(2005), which has since been published posthumously, along with a series of critical articles on Latin American and European writers, Trabajos (2006).

Saer’s novels frequently thematize the situation of the self-exiled writer through the figures of two twin brothers, one of whom remained in Argentina during the dictatorship, while the other, like Saer himself, moved to Paris; several of his novels trace their separate and intertwining fates, along with those of a host of other characters who alternate between foreground and background from work to work. Like several of his contemporaries (Ricardo Piglia, César Aira, Roberto Bolaño), Saer’s work often builds on particular and highly codified genres, such as detective fiction (The Investigation), colonial encounters (The Witness), travelogues (El rio sin orillas), or canonical modern writers (e.g. Proust, in La mayor, or Joyce, in Sombras sobre vidrio esmerilado).

His novel La ocasión won the Nadal Prize in 1987. He developed lung cancer, and died in Paris in 2005, at age 67.

10 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, Spanish Literature