Monthly Archives: July 2016

Review: This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

My Review:
This Must be the PlaceO’Farrell’s talent as an author lies in her ability to weave together the points-of-view of multiple characters into one seamless and captivating story.  The centerpiece of the book is the marriage of Daniel and Claudette but we view their histories and their paths toward each other through different people in their lives including ex-spouses, children, and employees.

The first person we encounter in the book is Daniel himself who is about to embark on a journey from his home in rural Donegal, Ireland to visit his family in Brooklyn, New York.  It is his estranged father’s ninetieth birthday and Daniel is making the trip back home in an attempt to reconnect with his family.  While Daniel is on his way to the United States memories of his past come flooding back and he decides that he wants to also reach out to his children, Niall and Phoebe from a previous marriage.  The storyline moves back and forth between the present and the past; as he is travelling to the United States, where he hasn’t been in ten years, it is natural for Daniel to think of the two children whom he was forced to give up.

Daniel is a linguistics professor and while he spent time teaching at Berkeley he met his first wife.  Their marriage had a bitter ending and his vengeful ex-wife wins custody of their two young children and refuses to allow Daniel to see them.  One of my favorite parts of the book is Daniel’s reunion with Niall and Phoebe in a coffee shop in California where he explains to them that he never stopped trying to have a relationship with them.  He wrote them hundreds of letters over the years, all of which their mother intercepted.  This meeting is the beginning of a meaningful and long-lasting relationship with his oldest children.

Daniel’s next stop on his making amends tour is to Brooklyn where he has vivid and heartbreaking memories of his mother.  She never seemed happy in her marriage and she was the only person in the family to have any real affection for Daniel.  O’Farrell weaves into the narrative the life and struggles of Daniel’s mother and how his relationship with her has had a profound effect on his current life.

While Daniel is in Brooklyn, he decides to make one last stop in London before he finally goes home to Ireland.  He learns that an ex-girlfriend from his college days died shortly after they broke up and Daniel feels responsible for her death.  But while Daniel is on his making amends tour, his wife feels neglected and left out.  It is ironic that Daniel’s making amends tour marks the beginning of trouble and estrangement for Daniel and Claudette.

Claudette is one of the most interesting characters in the book because she is quirky and unpredictable.  The beginnings of her career as a world-famous actress are told in great detail from various points-of-view.  While living in California with her long-time boyfriend and her five-year-old son, Ari, she decides that she just can’t take the attention and fame of being an actress any longer so she decides to disappear.  Claudette ends up in a remote, old farmhouse in Donegal Ireland where she just so happens to run into Daniel.  Their accidental meeting is a great example of O’Farrell’s deft ability to weave the lives of characters together with an amusing and heartwarming storyline.

The last part of the book focuses on Daniel and Claudette’s struggling marriage.  By all accounts Daniel should be happy with Claudette, their two children and his career as a linguist.  But his making amends tour appears to have had a negative effect on his mental stability and he begins to ignore what should be his greatest priorities.  We are left wondering whether or not Daniel will be able to make amends one final time with Claudette.   The place in the world where he seems happiest and where his life is the most complete is at that old farmhouse in Donegal.  Will Daniel ever be able to make his way back to this life?

This is my first Maggie O’Farrell book and I am eager to explore her other titles.  I am wondering if all of her books have such strong and interesting characters.  Two of my favorite characters in this book are Daniel’s sons, Ari and Niall, and I think she could get two more books out of them alone.

About the Author:
M O'FarrellMaggie O’Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones’ 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels – the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  For more information about the release of the book and the blog tour, please scroll down to the banner at the end of this post.

My Review:
breachbreach is a series of eight short stories that all focus on the plight of the refugees in Calais and the ripple effect that their presence has on the lives of everyone with whom they come in contact.  The refugees in these short stories are from different countries and have made their way to this camp in Calais which is referred to as The Jungle.  It is a type of holding place, a purgatory, where they are caught between the horrors of their past lives and their hopes of finding a future in Britain.

The first thought I had as I was reading breach was that these poor, downtrodden refugees must have witnessed the worst kinds of conditions and horrors in their homelands to leave everything behind for the unknown.  What would make someone leave home, cross an ocean, and risk death in order to find a new place to live?  The cold, the damp, the small spaces in the tents were all vividly described in these stories.  One young refugee comments that the camp in Calais is a jungle, but his home was pure hell.

The stories also highlight the volunteer workers and locals who are trying to help the refugees.  The town, in general, does not want the camp there and the refugees are kept in their own, separate makeshift town by fences and the constant presence of police.  The story, “The Terrier” poignantly illustrates the mistrust between refugees and locals.  A woman who owns a Bed and Breakfast in Calais is asked by the town council to take in two refugees, a brother and sister.  Since she has no customers and is in need of income, this local resident agrees to give the refugees room and board for a fee.  The woman tries to have as little contact with the young man and woman as possible.  She questions and distrusts everything they tell her.  But as she interacts with them she gradually comes to have sympathy for their wretched situation.  Although this brother and sister have a much more comfortable place to stay than most, they still return to The Jungle every day to see their friends.  They are outsiders in Calais and sadly enough the only place they feel “at home” is in the camp.

It is brave and innovative for Peirene to have commissioned a series of books like breach that will bring understanding to the plight of refugees and shine a spotlight on other policial and social issues that have arisen around the world.  At times this book was difficult to read because it brought the realities of human suffering to a level I did not fully understand. It was evident from reading this book that the authors spent quite a bit of time in Calais speaking to and interacting with the refugees, the relief workers and the local residents.  It is my hope that breach will be widely read and will make us all more sensitive to the suffering of refugees.  We can learn some important lessons from what is happening right now in Calais.

For more information of the book please visit the websites listed in the tour banner below:

breach_blog_tour

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Interview: Annie Holmes co-author of Breach

I am so excited today to post an interview with Annie Holmes, co-author of Peirene’s new release breach.  The book will be released in August and below is information about the book tour and launch.

About Breach and the Peirene Now! Series:

breach“The Jungle is like a laboratory”

In the refugee camp known as The Jungle an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out. Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in  the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore. It is the first title in the Peirene Now! series. This exciting new series will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. breach beautifully captures a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. The story that emerges is an empathetic and probing mosaic, which redefines the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ as the plot progresses towards a moving finale.

Author Interview- Annie Holmes:

Q. This book is very comprehensive in that it covers so many aspects of the refugee experience.  What do you hope is the biggest lesson that readers will take away from your stories?

A. At least two of the non-refugee characters in the book comment on the surprising normality, the village vibe, of the camp in Calais. I hope that when readers put the book down, they too will have met and will remember a host of individual refugees as normal people, albeit in exceptional circumstances – triumphant or defeated, morally compromised or steadfast, amusing or tragic, or the common human mix – each with a full life before her or his journey, looking to the future with some blend of hope and trepidation, just like you or I do. Through fiction, the reader can come to know a character inside as well as from the outside, as a human being rather than a statistic or a type. That’s the effect that I hope our book achieves.

Q. Why did you choose Calais to study and conduct interviews of refugees?  What are typical aspects of the refugee experience there and what is unique to that refugee camp?

A. For the UK and for those seeking to get there, Calais became a symbol. This was the place to across from Europe to the English-speaking refuge you hoped to reach. The last hurdle for would-be refugees to cross. From the other side of the Channel, Calais encapsulated the problem – whether you saw the problem as a threatening “horde” of migrants or as the failure of your own and other European governments to respond to a major human rights crisis and to abide by international law. Refugees headed to Calais – old, young, from many countries, alone or in families or groups – and so too did British and other volunteers, individuals and groups spurred to make up in good will and practical support the shortfall on the part of governments and most international NGOs. Into this convergence flowed the news media, storytellers like us, actors and artists, along with the French authorities, most visible marching bullet-proofed through the camp, and the smugglers, largely invisible. Every player in the migration saga was represented, and then some. The Jungle was a pressure cooker.

Who knows what Calais will come to mean now? Will the town continue to be the platform for dreams and dread, or was the Jungle a short-lived world of its own? Either way, that camp at that time contained multitudes – the many varieties of refugee experience as well as its own unique experiments.

Q. Why did you choose to write short stories instead of focusing on a novel or novella?  Why is the short story a more appropriate genre for your project?

A. We could invoke Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s maxim about the stereotyping danger of the single story. By contrast, in eight stories we could present a real range of experiences and characters. But I wouldn’t like to rate different genres as less or more appropriate. A novel format worked brilliantly for Dave Eggers, for example– Zeitoun burned the experience of Hurricane Katrina into the memory of anyone who read it. The more perspectives, the better.

Q. After visiting the refugee camp and speaking with so many displaced people, what is the one memory that most stays with you?

A. I lived in the Calais camp in memory for a long time, writing the book – re-walking paths, re-living conversations, remembering images. Here’s one that didn’t make it into my stories in any way. On the tiny veranda of a brightly painted shack hang three baskets of flowers, as if it’s a beach cottage or a holiday chalet. Beyond, a young man pedals like a maniac on a stationary red cycle, generating power to charge the cell phones lying in a basket fixed to the handlebars. He looks up, catches my eye and waves, a smile on his sweaty face. A bright blaze of energy, despite everything.

About the Authors:
Annie HolmesAnnie Holmes was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Her short fiction has been published in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the US. She now lives in the UK. “This is the third continent I’m calling home. My life here in the UK is somewhat precarious (African passport) and somewhat privileged (education and ‘white’ skin). This is also the third continent where I’m witnessing migrants and refugees vilified.”

 

PooplaOlumide Popoola is a Nigerian German writer of long and short fiction. She lectures in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “breach is my answer to the new wave of racism, views that are becoming acceptable again because of old ‘the boat is full’ narratives, because of the fear of the Other. These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

 

All of the dates for interviews and reviews are listed on the banner below:

breach_blog_tour

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Filed under Author Interviews, British Literature, Opinion Posts

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.

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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.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading