Monthly Archives: May 2016

Review: I Refuse by Per Petterson

This title was published in the original Norwegian in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Don Bartlett.  Graywolf Press has just released the title in a paperback version.

My Review:
I RefusePetterson presents us with the story of Tommy and Jim who grew up together under difficult circumstances in the same small town in Norway.  They lose touch with one another and a chance meeting on a cold morning on a bridge brings them back together and causes memories of their troubled childhood to flood their lives.  The story alternates between 2006, when they are middle-aged men and the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when they are teenagers.  Since their early years are full of tragedy, we get the feeling that for the rest of their lives they are fighting a constant emotional battle, pushing back against the darkness and continually having to say “I Refuse” to unpleasant circumstance.

Tommy’s mother abandoned her family when he was a small boy and she left his abusive father to care for Tommy and his three younger sisters.  Tommy’s father beats his children on a regular basis by kicking them in places that do not leave visible marks.  The children console themselves by gathering in their bedroom and comparing bruises.  One day Tommy’s father goes too far and beats him so severely that Tommy’s bruises take weeks to heal.  This is the first time in the book that Tommy steps up and says “I Refuse” to his father’s abuse as  he takes a bat and breaks his father’s ankle.  After this day Tommy’s father disappears, leaving the children alone to fend for themselves in the world.

The first part of the book is full of foreboding and gloom as the author foreshadows the fate of Tommy and his siblings.  After Tommy’s father disappears, their house is boarded up and the children are dispersed among different families  Tommy’s youngest sisters, five-year-old twins, are taken to a neighbor’s house to live.  Siri, his other sister and his closest friend, is taken to town to live with another family.  Tommy himself is taken in by a man named Jonsen who is a lonely bachelor that shows pity and compassion for Tommy.  But this man is not just being kind to a troubled teenager; we learn that Jonsen has more details and intimate knowledge of Tommy’s mother and her story.

Although on the surface Jim’s story appears to be less tragic than his best friend Tommy’s, his emotional wounds run just as deep.  Jim is raised by a Christian mother who sends him to a Christian school.  She never speaks about Jim’s father and Jim has no idea who he is.  Growing up with no male role model seems just as damaging to Jim as an abusive father is to Tommy.  Jim’s emotional state is fragile and all it takes for him to have a breakdown is an innocuous incident on a ice skating outing with Tommy.  Jim’s mental illness causes him to disconnect from his best friend and the saddest part of the story is the parting of these two friends.

In the end, it is Tommy who is able to resist the evil and dark forces that have surrounded him for most of his life.  Tommy becomes a successful businessman and at the end of the book there is even a sweet love story for him.  Jim, on the other hand, who appeared to have a bit more of a stable home life is no where near as resilient as Tommy.  Jim has a successful career as a librarian but a series of panic attacks force him to take a leave of absence from his job and he spends long periods of time alone and in bed.  In the end Jim cannot muster the spirit to say “I Refuse” and he gives into the darkness.

This is my first Per Petterson book and I enjoyed every aspect of it: the writing, the characters and the alternating narrative.  I am eager to read more of his novels.  Please let me know if the comments what other Petterson books you recommend!

About the Author:
Per PettersonPetterson knew from the age of 18 that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t embark on this career for many years – his debut book, the short story collection Aske i munnen, sand i skoa, (Ashes in the Mouth, Sand in the Shoes) was published 17 years later, when Petterson was 35. Previously he had worked for years in a factory as an unskilled labourer, as his parents had done before him, and had also trained as a librarian, and worked as a bookseller.
In 1990, the year following the publication of his first novel, Pettersen’s family was struck by tragedy – his mother, father, brother and nephew were killed in a fire onboard a ferry.

His third novel Til Sibir (To Siberia) was nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, and his fourth novel I kjølvannet (In the Wake), which is a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990, won the Brage Prize for 2000.
His breakthrough, however, was Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) which was awarded two top literary prizes in Norway – the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature

Review: Corven and the Krow by Jacob K. Webber

I received an advanced review copy of this novella from the author.  I don’t normally review fantasy titles, but I made an exception for this author because I know him personally.  He is one of my advanced Latin students.

My Review:
Corven and the KrowAs I have noted above I don’t usually read or review books in the fantasy genre.  It’s just not something that usually catches my attention, but when Mr. Webber sent me an e-mail to request a review how could I possibly say no?  He is one of the best students of Latin I have and, in fact, he is one of the most talented students I have ever had in my classes, so I was intrigued to see his writings.

Corven and the Krow is set in a pre-industrial, rural, agrarian society that one might encounter in The Lord of the Rings or, for those who are familiar with fantasy video games, in Skyrim.  The novella consists of a series of shorter stories which are all interconnected.  I was immediately drawn in by the set-up of the novella which describes a young girl sitting in a wagon being driven by an old man who has a large book out of which she reads this collection of stories.  We have no idea what the relationship is between these two or where they are going.  But is appears that these stories are meant to teach her some life lessons.

One of the figures that looms large and menacing over the entire story is the King Drevlyn, to whom we are introduced in the first story.  It is this cruel and powerful king around whom all of the stories revolve.  We learn that he defeated his predecessor in a bloody battle and has no mercy for anyone who did not take his side.  He demands loyalty and tribute even from the lowest members of his realm, including poor farmers.  If they don’t comply with the King’s demands then the punishment is swift and brutal.

The true talent of this author lies in his ability to create and fully describe an entire new world.  It is an amazing feat for an author to write a story set in the here and now, the contemporary world.  But I truly admire an author who can create an original world and convey the minute details about that world to others.  The world of Corven and the King and the Krow have objects and settings familiar to us, but they are crafted within the text in such a way as to encompass an entirely new and different world.

Finally, I have to mention the author’s obvious appreciation for and knowledge of the classical world.  The final story in the collection, Vita est Flumen (Life is a River), is an obvious nod to his classical education, but there are much deeper thoughts that are taken from Stoic philosophy.  All of life is constantly in flux;  life is oftentimes not fair and circumstances do not work out how we would wish.  What is important in this life is our reaction to events that are out of our control.  We must, essentially, go with the flow.

The author also designed his own cover art, which gives us a small preview of this fantasy world.  Please check out the author’s page on Amazon for more information: https://www.amazon.com/Corven-Krow-Jacob-K-Webber-ebook/dp/B01EIVWJ7S?ie=UTF8&keywords=jacob%20k.%20webber&qid=1464550195&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

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Filed under Novella

Review: Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

I received a review copy of this title from Two Lines Press.  The book was published in the original Portugese in 1991 and this English version has been translated by Adam Morris.

My Review:
Quiet CornerThe first reaction that I had to the writing style and narrative of this book is that it feels like a series of flash fiction stories.  When we first meet the narrator he lives in Porto Alegre with his mother is a decrepit, abandoned apartment.  Other miscreant vagabonds also spend their days idling around the lobby of this building and doing drugs.  The narrator’s actions and thoughts in the book reflect his aimless and disjointed life; he talks to his mother, he tries to write poetry, he sleeps, he wanders around the city.

The writing manages to be both subtle and shocking when he sexually assaults a girl whom he encounters sitting among the ruins of the city and singing.  The narrative of this encounter is so oddly non-descript for such a horrible act that I had to go back and read the brief paragraph to confirm in my mind what had just happened.  The narrator is then thrown in a jail for his crime and the next few pages of the book deal with the broken and disgusting men he encounters in this jail.

My comparison with flash fiction came to mind because Noll provides us with several different short stories about this narrator. In just a few pages the author gives us just enough of a story to provide an image of a complete setting, but then that story ends abruptly and leaves us with a million questions and wanting more details.  What did the narrator suddenly attack this girl?  How do they know he is guilty?  Why do they set him free so quickly from jail?

The next piece of flash fiction, if we continue with my assessment of the genre, is the narrator’s visit to the countryside once he is suddenly taken from his jail cell.  He is put into a clinic in São Leopoldo where the narrator meets Kurt, a German Brazilian.  Once again many questions come to mind: What is Kurt’s connection to the institution?  Why does Kurt want to help the narrator and care for him?  Why is the narrator put in a clinic instead of being kept in a jail cell?

The final, and largest story, takes place on Kurt’s country manor where the narrator is invited to live.  Greda, Kurt’s ailing wife, Octavio, a type of handyman and Amalia, a maid, also live on the property.  The narrator continues his wandering existence while on the manor, visiting Amilia for nocturnal amorous adventures, taking walks in the woods, and falling asleep listening to the radio.  Every once in a while he dabbles at his poetry but in the middle of the narrative he announces that after this period he never writes poetry again.

There are two additional themes that pervade the narrative that are also worth mentioning.  Sex and desire are never far from the narrator’s mind.  After his attack on his neighbor, his lust does not diminish.  He has several lascivious encounters in the book which are quick and never carried out with emotion or  feeling.  He also notes that at the beginning of the book when he is in Porto Alegre he is a boy and by the time he comes to live with Kurt on his manor he has fully become a man.  When Kurt’s wife dies and he is distraught at her passing, he looks to the narrator for comfort who admits this makes him sad.  This is the first time in the story that the narrator expresses true emotion and demonstrates that he might have actually matured.

This short book is a fascinating read because of the disjointed, flash fiction feel to the prose; it is a book that leaves us wanting more, not just of the narrator’s story but of Noll’s writing as well.  I am hoping that more of this author’s works will be published in English.

Please visit the publisher’s website for an excerpt of this book: http://twolinespress.com/?project=quiet-creature-on-the-corner-by-joao-gilberto-noll

About the Author:

João Gilberto Noll is the author of nearly 20 books. His work has appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he has been a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of over 10 awards in all, he lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Byron and the Beauty by Muharem Bazdulj

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Istros Books.  This English version has been translated by John K. Cox.

My Review:
byron-and-the-beauty_55f97422708f7_250x800rThis latest release from Istros Books is a fictional account of Lord Byron’s tour around parts of the Ottoman Empire in 1809 during which trip he is the guest of a local Albanian ruler, Ali Pasha.  The story takes place during a period of two weeks on his travels when Byron is accompanied by a retinue of English servants as well as his good friend John Hobhouse.  As they reach the city of Ali Pasha, they are greeted by a severed arm that is hanging from a tree and being slowly eaten by birds of prey.  There is an undercurrent of uneasiness throughout their stay in Yannina as they immediately understand that the political and social landscape of The Ottoman Empire is very different from England.

When Byron and his retinue arrive in Yannina, Ali Pasha is not at his palace because he is off in the north fending off one of his enemies.  So Byron is entertained and shown around the town by a man named Isak, who is a personal doctor of this local despot.  Isak has lived all over Europe and his English is quite good so he serves as Byron’s interpreter.  He also tells Byron many stories about the Balkans and also educates him about Eastern European customs.  The most important lesson Isak teaches Byron is about the Balkan words Dert and Sevdah, which mean a yearning and a craving desire, love and passion.  In the Balkans there is a woman born once every three hundred years, Isak tells him,  who are known for their beauty throughout the Empire.  Men feel Dert and Sevdah if they are lucky enough to set their eyes on one these beauties who are usually hidden by their families until they are given away to a Prince for marriage.

One such woman, whose name is Zuleiha, is rumored to be in the vicinity of Yannina.  Isak starts acting very strangely when he hears this rumor and he disappears for long periods of time in an attempt to get information on her whereabouts.  Byron listens to Isak’s story about this beautiful woman, but to him it is just a story, just a myth, until Byron sets eyes on Zuleiha himself.

It is apparent that Ali Pasha will not make it home in time to greet his British guest, so he invites them to his palace in the north.  Byron and his fellow travelers are accompanied by Isak on a long, arduous journey during the rainy season through the Balkans.  The rain is so intense at one point that they have to take shelter in a cave and then in a han, which is the Balkan word for hotel.  It is at this han that Byron gets a glimpse at the rare beauty of Zuleiha.  Byron is instantly smitten with her and at the sight of this woman he fully comprehends the meanings of Dert and Sevdah.

The exciting culmination of the book deals with Byron’s crazy plan to win Zuleiha as his wife.  I thoroughly enjoyed the entire story which, although brief, brought to life the personal details about this famous English poet.  We experience the fascinating mythology, cultural and landscape of the Balkans through Byron’s point-of-view and we better understand its influence on Byron’s writings.  When I was reading this book the image of Byron in his elaborate Albanian costume, which in the book is given to him as a gift, kept coming to mind.

About the Author:
m bazduljMuharem Bazdulj, born in 1977, is one of the leading writers of the younger generation to appear in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. He writes in a wide variety of genres, including novels, short stories, poetry, and essays; he is also active as a journalist and a translator. Bazdulj’s work has been published `Best European Fiction 2012´ (Ed. Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press) alongside Milan Kundera, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy and Andrzej Stasiuk. Short stories and essays in `World Literature Today´, `Creative Nonfiction´, `Habitus´, `Absinthe´ etc.Translations:One of his short story collections has appeared in English (The Second Book, Northwestern University Press, 2005). Bazdulj is the author of nine books in all, including his most recent set of stories, Magic. He currently lives in Travnik and Sarajevo. – See more at: http://istrosbooks.com/products/authors/muharem-bazdulj-68/#sthash.xWNOQwUS.dpuf

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Filed under Istros Books, Literature in Translation

Review: The Village by Marghanita Laski

My Review:
The VillageThis novel opens in 1945 on the day in which the end of World War II has just been announced in the small village of Priory Dean.  Everyone is celebrating and dancing in the streets but Martha Trevor and Edith Wilson still show up to their post duty at the Red Cross.  During the course of their conversation we learn that they are from very different social classes; Martha is part of the upper-class gentry that live on the Hill in town and Edith is part of the working class families that live on the other end of town.  At one point Edith worked as Martha’s housekeeper before Martha’s family hit some financially hard times.

The war was able to break down these long-standing class barriers and allowed people to mingle who otherwise would not have anything to do with one another in social situations.  During the war the town holds a series of dances to which all members of the town, regardless of social status, are able to attend.  These are just the circumstance under which Edith’s son, Roy and Martha’s daughter, Margaret are able to meet.  The very last war-time dance is Margaret’s first real social outing and she feels awkward and unsure of herself until Roy asks her to dance with him.

Laski provides us with a full picture of life in a small English town in the mid-twentieth century.  In addition to the Wilson’s and the Trevor’s we also get the town spinster, Miss Porteous, a retired school mistress, and her sidekick, the town gossip, Miss Beltram.  The town physician, Dr. Gregory and the town pastor, Rev. Robinson are also important figures in this village.  Finally, the town “outsiders,” the Wetheralls, who move into the largest house in town also feature prominently in the action.  There is a complete cast of characters representing the gentry and the working class and Laski provides a list of these characters with descriptions in the index which is very helpful to remember everyone that appears in the plot.

Once the war is over, everyone goes back to their proper place in town and it is no longer acceptable for upper-class and working-class citizens to interact with one another.  Martha Trevor is particularly adamant about not mixing with anyone outside of her social class.  She is also bitter and angry that she can no longer afford hired help to run her household; she must scrub her own floors and wash her own laundry which she finds beneath her lot in life.  Martha often takes out her frustration on her oldest daughter Margaret whom she feels is not pretty or clever.  Martha fears that Margaret will never be able to attract a husband or find employment that is worthy of her high social rank in society.

The relationship that develops between Margaret and Roy is sweet and romantic.  Because they are forbidden to have anything to do with each other due to their different social classes, they meet each other in secret.  They go to the movies and dinner together and then Roy starts to show up to Margaret’s place of employment every day just so he can spend an hour with her at lunch.  The culminating romantic interlude they have during which they confess their love and become engaged involves a bike ride and a picnic in the countryside.  Roy is kind, gentle, respectable and has a great job as a printer.  He is the perfect husband but Margaret’s parents are angry when they find out because of Roy’s lower social position.

This story has elements of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Even though the town is scandalized by the intermarriage of this sweet couple, the outcome for Roy and Margaret is much happier than these other star crossed lovers.

This is the third Laski title that I have read from Persephone Books and my favorite of the three.  Here are the links to my other two Laski reviews:

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2015/09/14/review-to-bed-with-grand-music-by-marghanita-laski/

https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2015/09/03/review-little-boy-lost-by-marghanita-laski/

Please visit Persephone’s website for more information on these titles as well as their selection of wonderful British Classics: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/

About the Author:
M LaskiEnglish journalist, radio panelist, and novelist: she also wrote literary biography, plays, and short stories.

Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.

A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Persephone Books