Monthly Archives: June 2016

Review: The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

My Review:
The Parable BookThis is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life.  The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself.  When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives.  He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.

One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections.  But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute.   This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out.  The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.

Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend.  Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life.  One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore.  Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days.  She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.”  Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer.  This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish.  It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.

The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman.  Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village.  Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade.  And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.

This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening.  Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany.  But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it.  According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor.  But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.

This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable.  Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book.  Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.

For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read.  So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K.  I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

About the Author:
P EnquistPer Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist is one of Sweden’s internationally best known authors. He has worked as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician.

After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.

Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.

 

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

Review: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

My Review:
A Lady and her HusbandThis latest release from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years.  When the book begins Mary is being told by her second eldest daughter, Rosemary, that she is engaged to be married.  Mary tries very hard to be stoic about this announcement even though she is upset because another one of her children is flying the coop.  Mary married John at a very young age and she has been a devoted wife and mother for her entire adult life.  The thought that of all three of her children no longer need her makes her sad and she feels lost.

Rosemary feels so guilty that she is going to be leaving her mother that she comes up with an idea of how Mary can now occupy her time.  Mary’s husband, John, owns a successful chain of tea shops and Rosemary thinks it would be a great idea for her mother to take an interest in the shop girls and find ways to improve their working conditions in the shops.  Rosemary is much more liberal and progressive than her mother so she knows that this task is way outside her mother’s comfort zone.  But Rosemary encourages her mother to have a life beyond her home.  Mary has never ventured into the realm of social causes so she is very hesitant to agree to this little project but she does so reluctantly after her husband John talks her into it.

The real conflict in the book begins when Mary starts to form her own ideas about improving the working conditions in the tea shops.  Mary wants the girls to wear more comfortable shoes, to have a proper place to eat their lunch, and she wants to increase their wages.  When Mary timidly approaches John with her suggestions, his temper explodes and he berates her for what he calls her silly little reforms.  Mary’s idea to increase wages for his employees is especially worrisome to John who believes that he pays his workers a fair wage.  John immediately rejects all of Mary’s ideas for changing the tea shops and tells her that she is naïve and that none of her ideas are practical and would work in the real world.

There is an underlying commentary in the book on the differences between men and women and how they must recognize and learn to work around those differences in a marriage.   Mary and John have had a marriage that is free of arguing and misunderstandings because she stays at home and doesn’t have anything to do with John’s business. John often comes across as condescending when he calls Mary “little mother” or “poor old thing.”  He does truly care for her but he draws the line at wanting to please her when she tries to interfere with his business.  Mary, on the other hand, after visiting John’s shops, better understands the plight of the poor and working classes and she approaches these issues from an emotional angle.  At one point in the book she recognizes that she cannot make a rational decision free from emotion with John around so she takes a flat in London to give herself time to think.

This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century.  Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.  Reeves has written a charming and humorous book about the differences between men and women and the perils of navigating a successful marriage.  But there is also a serious side to the book that highlights issues that persistently affect the working classes and the poor.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you love the titles in the Persephone catalog then you must read this book.

About the Author:
Amber Reeves, the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves, was born in 1887 in New Zealand. When her father was appointed Agent-General in 1896 her parents moved to England. Amber went to Kensington High School. Her mother was active in the Fabian Society and in 1912 wrote Round About a Pound a Week (now Persephone Book No. 79). In 1905 Amber, ‘a clear and vigorous thinker’, went up to Newnham College, Cambridge to read philosophy. After her affair with HG Wells led to pregnancy, in 1909 she married a young lawyer, Rivers Blanco White. Two more children were born in 1912 and 1914. She published three novels including A Lady and Her Husband (1914), worked at the Admiralty, and ran the Women’s Wages Department at the Ministry of Munitions; later she was briefly a civil servant, wrote a fourth novel, stood for Parliament, taught at Morley College for 37 years and published books on ethics and economics. She died in 1981.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Persephone Books

Review: Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My Review:
Grief is a thing with feathersAll of us deal with grief in different ways and in this short book Max Porter presents us with grief in the form of a crow.  It is not a mystery why the crow is the perfect symbol of grief.  Crows are oftentimes associated with bad luck or evil omens, which is appropriate this book in which the Mum dies from a strange accident.  Crows are also birds of carrion which swoop down and eat the remains of decaying animals.  But crows are also know for their intelligence and resilience, so what better animal to use than this bird to personify grief.

When the book begins the character who is simply called “Dad,” is wandering around in his flat only five days after his wife has died.  At this point all of the mourners have departed and the children are asleep and the doorbell rings.  When he answers, Dad is accosted by feathers and describes his strange experience, “There was a rich smell of decay, and moss, and leather, and yeast.”  A crow appears and tells Dad, “I won’t leave until you need me anymore.”

The rest of this short book alternates between Dad, Crow and the Children narrating the story.  The Crow is there to easy the grief for Dad and the children.  But he also gives advice, babysits and entertains.  When Crow speaks the story takes on a poetic tone.  When he enters the home he notices that “The whole place was heaving mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” Crow notices that there is not an inch of the home that is unaffected by the Mum’s sudden death.

I love that the author includes the point-of-view of the children since grief affects them very differently than adults.  The children, who are two small boys, and whom the author simply calls “Boys,” say that they first can’t get a straight answer about where Mum is.  It is natural that adults want to protect children from misfortune but Dad can only keep the truth from the Boys for so long.  Children oftentimes understand serious things more than we give them credit.  They say about the Mum’s death: “We guessed and understood that this was a new life and Dad was a different type of Dad now and we were different boys, brave new boys without a mum.”  Throughout the book the boys are not only brave, but astute at analyzing their feelings as well as their Dad’s.

There are some truly exceptional, short passages that beautifully capture the grief of Dad who loved his wife dearly and was very close to her.  For example, the Dad gets very upset when he starts to forget everyday, mundane things about his wife.  So to assuage his grief he tells the boys what a wonderful Mum they had.  The Boys grieve for the Mum in their own unique ways.  One of my favorite passages written from the point-of-view of the boys is when they describe how they used to be scolded for spattering the mirror with toothpaste, leaving the toilet seat up and for not shutting drawers.  The Boys now do these things because they miss their Mum and doing these same things now reminds them of her.

This short, powerful book poetically describes the gaping hole that the absence of a loved one leaves in our life.  We are all affected by grief in different ways, we all have that crow that hangs around us as a reminder of what we have lost.  But in the end everything does get a little better and a little easier and the crow eventually flies away.

About the Author:
M PorterMax Porter works in publishing. He lives in South London with his wife and children.

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Filed under British Literature, Novella

A Father’s Day Review: Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Aeneid VI

Heaney Aeneid VIWhen I bought this translation of Aeneid VI and read Heaney’s introduction, I thought it would be a fitting review on the blog for Father’s Day.  In the introduction to the translation, Heaney says that he gravitated towards this book of the Aeneid when his own father who passed away shortly before he began his translation.  The Aeneid is full of father and son relationships and Heaney recognizes that Aeneid VI in particular highlights the special relationship between Vergil’s hero and his father Anchises.

As Troy is burning because of the Greek treachery of the horse, Aeneas manages to escape the city while carrying his elderly father on his back.  Aeneas could have easily left the old man behind, but he would never have considered abandoning his parent.  As Aeneas is sailing the Mediterranean in search of a new home, Anchises eventually succumbs to a peaceful and natural death.  In Book VI, Aeneas tells the priestess of Apollo that his greatest wish is to see his father and have one more conversation with him.

In these shadowy marshes the Aceron floods

To the surface, vouchsafe me one look,

One face-to-face meeting with my dear father

Point out the road, open the holy doors wide.

On these shoulders I bore him through flames

And a thousand enemy spears. In the thick of fighting

I saved him and he was at my side then

On all my sea-crossings, battling tempests and tides

A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.

Most men would not have dared to venture into the land of the dead to have a last conversation, but Aeneas is no ordinary man and the relationship with his father was no ordinary relationship.  Aeneas must first visit the Sibyl of Cumae, the priestess of Apollo, to get instructions on how to approach and gain access to the land of the dead.  Aeneas knows that this undertaking is dangerous and that very few men or heroes have succeeded in traveling down to the underworld and then regaining access to the land of the living.

Aeneas sees awful things on his journey to the nether regions.  He witnesses countless souls standing on the banks of the river Styx trying to gain passage on Charon’s boat to bring them across to their final, peaceful resting places.  He also witnesses the souls of men being tortured and punished in Tartarus; these men were horrible and wicked in their earthly lives and the Sybil tells him that the punishments being doled are fitting for their crimes.  But witnessing all of this sorrow and horror is worth it to Aeneas just to have that one final conversation with his father.

When Aeneas finally sees Anchises, his father is in the Elysian Fields, the place where good and kind and blessed souls wander in peace.  Anchises’ role, like that of any good father,  becomes that of mentor, of cheerleader, of counselor to his son who still has many challenges in front of him.  Anchises shows Aeneas that the result of his efforts and tribulations will be a progeny which the entire world will celebrate and revere.  It is Anchises’ encouraging words that Aeneas uses as inspiration to embark on the second half of his journey, on the part of the story to which Vergil refers as arma.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI is poetic and beautiful.  It adheres to the spirit of the original Latin while rendering Vergil’s words into a graceful and elegant story in English.  For those who have wanted to read Vergil’s epic poem but find the idea of reading all twelve books too daunting, Heaney’s translation of Aeneid VI serves as the perfect introduction to this Latin classic.

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Filed under Classics

Review: What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Atria books via NetGalley.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Nick Caistor and Lorena Garcia.

My Review:
What We BecomeMax Costa is a scoundrel and a thief but you wouldn’t know it from his refined manner and elegant clothes.  We first meet him in 1928 on board the Cap Polonio, a transatlantic luxury liner bound for Buenos Aires.  Max is a professional ballroom dancer on the ship and he entertains the unaccompanied young women with his tangos and fox trots.  But his work as a ballroom dancer is just a cover for his real profession which his stealing from his rich dance partners.  The narrative takes place between 1928 and 1966 and alternates between three distinct periods of time during which Max meets a woman whom he cannot forget.

On board the ship Max meets an intriguing Spanish couple; the husband is a world-famous composer, Armando de Troeye and his younger, gorgeous, and elegant wife Mecha Inzunza de Troeye.  What draws Max to the couple at first is a very expensive pair of pearls that the wife wears which Max believes he can easily steal and make a large profit for little effort.  Mecha is an excellent dancer and she is particularly skillful at the Tango, for which dance her husband has in mind to compose a new piece.  Armando likes to watch while Mecha dances often with Max and this builds up the sexual tension between the dance partners.

Once they land in Buenos Aires Max, who lived in that city until he was fourteen, serves as their tour guides to all of the local dance pubs.  Armando wants to know the origins of the Tango, which is not the same Tango that is performed among the European gentry.  Their time in Buenos Aires is fraught with danger and tension as they go to some of the seediest places in the city.  Max and Mecha also begin a passionate love affair, but their relationship, if one can call it that, is not at all what I expected.  This is not a clandestine affair that is hidden from Mecha’s husband but, on the contrary, he encourages her to seduce Max and he even watches them while they make love.

Max gets his hands on Mecha’s pearls and disappears.  When he next meets up with Mecha it is almost ten years later in Nice, where he has lived comfortably as a gentleman off of his ill-gotten earnings.  This is one of the most exciting parts of the book because Max is asked by spies for both the Italian and Spanish governments to steal some sensitive documents from the home of a rich, society woman.  Max fits in perfectly with the European gentry so he has the perfect cover to case the house and come up with a plan that involves breaking into a house and safe cracking.

During his stint as a secret agent he, once again, runs into Mecha who is living in Nice alone because her husband has been arrested among the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.  The theft of the pearl necklace is all but forgotten as Mecha and Max rekindle their sexual relationship.  They are drawn to each other and their physical relationship is intense, passionate and sometimes even boarders on the violent.

After Max completes his mission he must flee Nice for fear of being arrested and his farewell to Mecha this time is emotionally difficult for both of them.  It is evident that the have deep feelings for each other and saying goodbye is difficult not something that they want to do.  When Max meets Mecha, almost thirty years later in Sorrento, he can’t stay away from her this time either.  Max is now sixty-four years old and has retired from his dangerous career as a thief.  He lives a quiet life as a chauffeur for a Swiss doctor.  Mecha is in town because her son, Jorge Keller, is competing in a national chess competition and Max decides to check into her hotel so he can reminisce about his younger, more exciting days.

The last part of the book also has a bit of a mystery which involves Jorge’s Russian chess opponent.  There is cheating and spying going on and Mecha asks Max to help her son plot against the Russians.  Max is very reluctant to get involved in international affairs, even if it is just chess, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his now stable and quiet life.  But Mecha has a secret weapon that convinces Max to come out of retirement and use his thieving skills against the Russians.

This book is full of mystery and suspense with multiple plot lines woven throughout.  My problem with the book is that some scenes were so suspenseful and interesting and then others were boring and superfluous to the plot.  A few scenes could have been edited to make the plot even stronger.  Also, the relationship of Max and Mecha isn’t fully developed until about two-thirds of the way into the story.  At first their relationship is purely physical and I would have been more interested to see the emotional side of these two characters laid out much earlier on in the plot.

Overall this was an interesting read full of mystery, passion, tango and chess.  If you enjoy a good historical fiction set in the 20th century then I recommend giving this book a chance.

About the Author:
A ReverteSpanish novelist and ex-journalist. He worked as a war reporter for twenty-one years (1973 – 1994). He started his journalistic career writing for the now-defunct newspaper Pueblo. Then, he jumped to news reporter for TVE, Spanish national channel. As a war journalist he traveled to several countries, covering many conflicts. He put this experience into his book ‘Territorio Comanche’, focusing on the years of Bosnian massacres. That was in 1994, but his debut as a fiction writer started in 1983, with ‘El húsar’, a historical novella inspired in the Napoleonic era.

Although his debut was not quite successful, in 1988, with ‘The fencer master’, he put his name as a serious writer of historic novels. That was confirmed in 1996, when was published the first book of his Captain Alatriste saga, which has been his trademark. After this book, he could leave definitely journalism for focusing on his career as a fiction writer. This saga, that happens in the years of the Spanish golden age, has seen, for now, seven volumes, where Pérez-Reverte shows, from his particular point of view, historical events from Spanish history in the 16th century.

Apart from these, he also penned another successful works like Dumas Club and Flandes Panel, titles that, among others, made Pérez-Reverte one of the most famous and bestseller authors of Spanish fiction of our era.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading