Monthly Archives: November 2015

Review: August by Christa Wolf

I received a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  This book was originally published in German and this edition has been translated by Katy Derbyshire.  This is my final contribution to German Literature Month.  This has been a fantastic event with over 130 titles reviewed by bloggers.

My Review:
Layout 1The author, Christa Wolf, wrote this 74 page book in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband.  It is a beautiful, heartwarming story that shows us that even in the most extreme and unfortunate circumstances love and kindness can make everything tolerable.  August and his mother were forced from their home in East Prussia at the end of World War II and as these refugees were traveling by train to escape the atrocities of war, an accident takes August’s mother.  As an orphan August is placed in a hospital, which is actually a former castle turned into a hospital that treats tubercular and consumptive patients.

August is surrounded by sickness and death and sorrow but what he remembers most about his time at the hospital is an older girl named Lilo.  Lilo is a teenager, so she is a bit older than August, but her warmth and kindness are something that August constantly wants to be around.  Her songs and stories make him forget, at least for a little while, that he is an orphan living in a hospital.  No matter how sick or close to death another patient might be, Lilo still visits and tenderly cares for many of the children at the hospital.

August is now a sixty-year-old man looking back on his life and remembering his time in the hospital after the war.  It is a testament to the resilency of the human spirit that August doesn’t remember all of the death and destruction around him, but what stands out in his mind is the compassion and generosity of Lilo.  August has lived a full and happy life and he is able to look back on it with a warm feeling in his heart and no regrets.  August is also very thankful for the wonderful life he has shared with his wife and for his job of driving tourists back and forth from Prague to Dresden.  He is a simple man and is so grateful for what might seem to many as insignificant memories.

Written in beautiful, concise prose, Wolf is the perfect example of the fact that even a very short novella can have a powerful and far reaching impact on readers.

About the Author:
C WolfA citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month.  This has been such a fun event with so many bloggers reviewing great German books.  To see a complete list go to the #GermanLitMonth hash tag on Twitter.  This title was originally published in German in 2010 and this version is translated into English by Donal McLaughlin.

My Review:
Zbinden's ProgressLukas Zbinden lives in a nursing home in Germany and even though he isn’t as fast as he used to be, one of his favorite activities is still taking his daily walk.  Most of the book entails Lukas taking walks with Kazim, one of the newly-hired caretakers at the home.  On their walks Lukas describes to Kazim the other inhabitants of the home, Lukas’ former life before the nursing home, and Lukas’ philosophical musings on the importance of walking.

Lukas and his deceased wife, Emilie, have one son named Markus and much of Lukas’ story deals with his son and his inability to connect with Markus even as an adult.  Markus is a chemist and when Lukas asks him about his work and his lab Markus’ answers are short and nondescript.  Lukas stretches his memory back to Markus’ childhood during which Emilie did most of the parental nurturing.  But Lukas was by no means a distant father; he oftentimes tries to get involved in his son’s life, such as the time he tries to console Markus after his first love breaks his heart.  For whatever reason, Lukas and Markus are never able to connect on a deeper, emotional level.

Lukas had a long and successful career as a teacher and his stories about his students and his various jobs are very funny.  After an episode in which his wife tells him to be quiet, she even slaps him to get her point across, Lukas decides to be completely silent in his classroom.  The situation that unfolds is at first uncomfortable as the students can’t decide what is going on with Herr Zbinden.  But as they try to take control of the learning environment themselves, chaos ensues.  Lukas has to break his silence to stop the fighting and excessive swearing of his out-of-control students.

One of the things I liked most about Lukas is his ability to talk to and make friends with anyone.  He even tries to reach out to and chat with the more reticent and crabby members of the nursing home.  He makes friends with all sorts of people on his daily walks.  There is not very much substance to the plot of this book, but instead it is one of those stories that is driven by a single, strong and heartwarming character.  It was a pleasure to accompany Herr Zbinden on his literal walk down the stairs of the nursing home and his metaphorical walk through the memories of his full and rich life.

About the Author:
Christoph-SimonChristoph Simon was born in 1972 in Emmental, Switzerland. After travels through the Middle East, Poland, South America, London and New York, he has settled in Bern. His first novel, Franz, or Why Antelopes Run in Herds (2001) has sold over 10,000 copies, while Planet Obrist (2005) was nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. Zbinden’s Progress is his fourth novel and won the 2010 Bern Literature Prize.

German Lit Month

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Review: Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Istros Books.  Dry Season was the winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013.  This book was originally written in Slovene and this English translation has been done by Rawley Grau.

My Review:
dry-season-cover_54aff6fb99d92_250x800rI have to admit that before I read this book I really knew nothing about the small West African nation of Burkina Faso.  The setting alone of this story in this small and politically volatile country taught me so many things, but the book as a whole is also a fantastic read.

From all outward appearances, the two main characters of this story could not be more different.  Anna is a 62-year-old white woman from Slovenia who has had a successful career as a textile artist.  Ismael is a 27-year-old black man from Burkina Faso who has grown up on the streets and has never had any real job or career.  It is surprising, even shocking that Anna and Ismael become lovers, but the author weaves their tales together so perfectly that in the end we are convinced that this relationship has had a powerful impact on both of them.

The narrative alternates between the point of view of both main characters.  We learn that Anna was rescued from an orphanage by her parents who, in a last ditch effort to save their marriage, agree to adopt a child since they cannot have one of their own.  But her parent’s strained relationship takes an emotional toll on her as a little girl as she is mostly left to be raised by a housekeeper.  Anna’s father is busy with his multitude of extramarital affairs and Anna’s mother remains aloof from her daughter while she constantly works at her sewing machine making women’s lingerie.  Anna eventually falls into an unhappy marriage with a man whom her mother chose for her and her only son from this marriage ends up in a mental institution.  Anna abandons her home, her family and her past to find some peace and quiet in Africa.

Ismael, when he was very young, lived in a remote African village with his mother who was an outcast.  Ismael never knew who his father was and he is constantly witnessing his mother being abused by fellow villagers as she is tied to the “shaming pole” and spit upon.  We are never told exactly what his mother’s sin is in the eyes of the villagers, but there is reason to suspect it has something to do with Ismael’s lack of a father.  Ismael and his mother eventually migrate to the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, where they live in cardboard boxes under a bridge.  When Ismael’s mother is killed and he is left alone in a city full of dangerous people, he is taken in by strangers who never really fulfill the role of a family for him.  He stays with an “ebony” woman and her husband for a while who have lost their own son and are trying to keep Ismael as their surrogate child.  Ismael also stays with a man named Baba who has been the only positive male role model in his life.  But Ismael gets pulled into the illegal and dangerous activities of Baba’s son Malik.

Even though they are born on different continents and decades apart there are some important ties that bind Anna and Ismael together.   They both feel abandoned and isolated, neither of them knows their real father and both of their mothers are emotionally distant. Anna and Ismael have separate and distinct stories told in alternating chapters, but the way in which the author gradually weaves together their stories is brilliant.  At first appearance it would seem that Anna and Ismael are using their sexual relationship to suppress their feelings of abandonment and isolation.  But as they share their stories with one another a deeper, emotional bond is forged.

Set against the backdrop of the harmattan, the dry season in West Africa, this novel  is a must read for anyone who enjoys brilliant literary writing with strong and intense characters.  I kept asking myself throughout the novel why, of all places on earth, Anna would pick this obscure West African country to flee to.  The dry season is one of extremes: extreme amounts of dust, extreme changes in temperatures, extreme fog and eventually extreme downpours of rain when the season ends.  This is the perfect setting for two characters who are, much like the dry season itself, both going through the extremes experiences of human existence.

This is my first title from Istros Books, an Independent British publisher that specializes in translating books from Eastern Europe into English,  and I am very excited to see what else they have in their catalogue.

About the Author:
gabriela-babnik_54d0fce19b0a4_250x800rGabriela Babnik was born in 1979 in Göppingen, Germany. After finishing her studies at Ljubljana University, she spent some time in Nigeria before working on a master’s degree on the modern Nigerian novel. Since 2002, she has regularly contributed articles to all major daily and weekly publications in Slovenia. In 2005, Babnik graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Ljubljana.

Her first novel Koža iz bombaža (Cotton Skin) was published in 2007 and was awarded the Best Debut Novel by the Union of Slovenian Publishers at the Slovenian Book Fair. In 2009, her second novel V visoki travi (In the Tall Grass) was published, which was shortlisted for the Kresnik Award in 2010.

Babnik lives with her family in Ljubljana.

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Review: War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda

I received an ARC from Open Letter Press through Edelweiss.  This English edition has been translated by Martha Tennent

My Review:
War So Much WarAdrià Guinart lives in Barcelona with his mother and adopted younger sister.  But at the first chance he gets he leaves his home and joins an unnamed war that is ravaging the countryside.  He is only fifteen-years-old and what he sees while the war is raging forms the bulk of this bizarre and surreal narrative.  The book almost reads like a series of shorts stories, each of which is based on a different character that Adria meets while he is away from home at war.

There is very little fighting or war that Adria actually sees while he is roaming the countryside.  He stumbles upon the after affects of the war by meeting some wretched people along the way.  He meets a woman named Eva who is a miller’s daughter.  The book reads like a fantasy and sometimes the story is very disjointed and his episode with a woman named Eva is a perfect example.  As he is wading in a river with her for a while he learns that she is a miller’s daughter.  Their time together is very brief and when he parts from her he makes his way to the mill that her father owns.  At the mill he is tied up and beaten by the miller and eventually escapes.  He later meets up with Eva again, which second encounter seems even more random than the first.  They have a brief conversation and she leaves him again.

Another strange episode that Adria experiences takes place at a farmhouse that he stumbles upon in the woods.  When he first sees the owner of the house he is mercilessly beating his dog who has stolen a morsel of food.  The farmer explains that there is nothing in this world that he despises more than a thief and so he unleashes his anger on the family pet.  Adria stays with the farmer and his family for about two weeks doing chores for them in exchange for food and shelter.  One night the farmer’s daughters take Adria to a hidden pantry where Adria steals a ham.  When the farmer finds the ham, Adria suffers the same type of vicious beating that the dog received.  At this point he is forced to leave the farmhouse and once again roam the countryside.

The randomness and lack of smooth transitions from one scene to the next give the book a dreamlike quality.  It’s as if we have a front row seat to a viewing of Adria’s never ending nightmare.  Adria comes upon a castle whose owner has been tied up and held hostage in his own home.  He then wanders off once again and finds a girl on a beach who pledges her undying loyalty to him.  When he rejects her, she walks into the sea and commits suicide.  While walking along the sea Adria encounters a beach house where the owner welcomes him and feeds him.  He ends up staying with the man who owns the beach house, Senyor Ardevol,  for weeks and when the man dies he leaves his home and his possessions to Adria.

For the second part of the book Adria meets a series of interesting characters on the road whose stories are told in greater length.  Adria starts with Ardevol’s story and how he came to live in the beach house and how he came to see the strange image in the mirror in his foyer.  Adria also meets a cat man, a hermit and a man with a never-ending appetite, all of whom have strange tales to tell.  Even with the shift of focus in the book from Adria himself to the people he meets on the road, the stories in the second part of the book are just as fantastical and surreal as Adria’s experiences in the first part.

I have mixed feelings about this book but I think that is due to my preference for more realistic fiction.  The overall idea of the book is interesting but some of the shorter encounters of the main character, especially in the first half of the book, did not keep my attention.  Has anyone else read any other books by Mercè Rodoreda?  I am wondering if they are similar to this title.

 

About the Author:
Merce RMercè Rodoreda i Gurguí was a Spanish / Catalan novelist.

She is considered by many to be the most important Catalan novelist of the postwar period. Her novel “La plaça del diamant” (‘The diamond square’, translated as ‘The Time of the Doves’, 1962) has become the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time and since the year it was published for the first time, it has been translated into over 20 languages. It’s also considered by many to be best novel dealing with the Spanish Civil War.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Spanish Literature

Review: Bird by Noy Holland

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Counterpoint Press through Edelweiss

My Review:
BirdThis is a bizarre and surreal book that follows two different periods in the life of a woman named Bird.  And actually Bird doesn’t even seem to be her real name, but a strange nickname given to her by a former boyfriend named Mickey.  When the book opens, we are given a glimpse into a typical day in the life of Bird, a housewife and a mother of two young children.  Her oldest child, although a little boy of an indeterminate age,  is apparently old enough to go to school, is getting ready to catch the bus.  Bird is trying to get her son ready for his day at school and make him breakfast while also dealing with the needs of her infant daughter.  From all outward appearances, Bird seems to have a happy and content domestic life.

But in between her domestic tasks Bird keeps remembering the time she spent with her old boyfriend named Mickey.  Bird met Mickey when she was very young and they lived on very little money in horrible, decrepit apartments.  For quite some time, they carried on a vagabond existence fueled by drugs and sex.  When Bird finds out that she is pregnant, she and Mickey could not be happier and they immediately name their unborn child Caroline.  Even though they have little money and no jobs, they are happy and want to make a life together with their baby.  But when Bird has an unexpected miscarriage, things begin to come apart in their relationship.  Mickey starts wandering off for days at a time and his moods and behavior become unpredictable and erratic.

After the miscarriage, Bird and Mickey go on a road trip, traveling part of they way in his old car and eventually ending up on foot and hitchhiking.  The parts that describe their journey are very strange and disjoined, especially when compared against the backdrop of Bird’s current, orderly life.  At one point when Bird is home alone with her baby, she drinks rum and takes a hot bath with her baby.  This episode of drinking during the day makes us wonder if there is some discontent in Bird’s life, or if she maybe at least has a longing for the chaos and freedom that she experienced with Mickey in her youth.  Bird also revisits her past through conversations with her old friend Suzie with whom she speaks to a several points throughout her day.  And Bird further recounts letters that she has written to her mother which express the extremes of happiness and sorrow that she experiences in her life with Mickey.

I also have to mentioned the language of the book which takes some getting used to.  When I first started reading the story I almost gave up because I found the disjointed and choppy sentences very distracting from the story.  Some paragraphs even go on for half a page with single words that serve as sentences.   However, as I read the more cohesive parts of the story, I  became very interested in Bird’s narrative.  I also started to view the disjointed language as something very fitting for the turmoil that Bird feels in her mind.  On the one had she loves her husband and children, but on the other hand she can’t help but feel pulled back by the memories of her past.  I don’t think Bird would give up her family to find and be with Mickey again, but her time with him has left an indelible and ineradicable impression on her memory and on her soul.

About the Author:
Noy HollanNoy Holland’s debut novel, Bird, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in Fall 2015. Her collections of short fiction and novellas include Swim for the Little One First (FC2), What Begins with Bird (FC2), and The Spectacle of the Body (Knopf.) She has published work in The Kenyon Review, Antioch, Conjunctions, The Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Western Humanities Review, The Believer, NOON, and New York Tyrant, among others. She was a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council award for artistic merit and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She has taught for many years in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, as well as at Phillips Andover and the University of Florida. She serves on the board of directors at Fiction Collective Two.

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