Monthly Archives: May 2013

Quick Book Review: Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

pereiramaintains

Pereira Maintains, a novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, may be slight in size but it is certainly big on impact. It’s one of those novels that, even though not a lot happens during the course of the novel, you get really drawn in to and in which the characters just seem very real.

It’s set in Lisbon in the late 1930s, when Dr. Pereira begins the task of editing the cultural pages on the small newspaper the Lisboa. He has the idea of writing advance obituaries for prominent writers of the time and enlists the help of a young man Monteiro Rossi after reading an article written by him on death which left him very affected. He lets himself in for much more than he bargained for, compelled to support Rossi in a world that is beginning to feel the effects of the Spanish Civil War and the coming of the Second World War, and which imposes consequences on those who try to oppose the changes.

I read this book a few weeks ago now but it has stayed with me. I know it is set in Portugal before the Second World War but I feel that Dr. Pereira is alive somewhere, if not in body then in spirit. The spirit of a man quietly questioning what is going on around him, wondering if he has the courage to stand up to it all. I actually want to pick this book up and start reading it again. I feel that in this country so much great literature passes us by, that we only get a small selection of foreign fiction. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough – I’ll definitely be looking to read more translated fiction in future as this book has reminded me of why I love it so much!

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Next Book Club Choice: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

After a bit of a hiatus, book club is back! Our read for this month is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a few years now and I’m really glad that it has been picked. The blurb:

“HERE IS A SMALL FACT – YOU ARE GOING TO DIE

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION – THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH

It’s a small story, about:

a girl

an accordionist

some fanatical Germans

a Jewish fist fighter

and quite a lot of thievery.

ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW – DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES”

It all sounds very intriguing… I think the plan is to discuss this book at the end of the month so I expect my review to be up in June. Have you read The Book Thief? What did you think of it?

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Book Review: The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

The-Presidents-Hat

*I received this book from the publishers as a review copy*

I think it is actually the first proper review copy I have received directly from a publisher, via twitter. I think this was due to my review of The Confidant (also published by Gallic Books) which I read in September last year and thoroughly enjoyed. I was therefore more than happy to read this book – I’ve mentioned before that I like to read translated fiction and this certainly fit the bill. The President’s Hat (first published in France as Le Chapeau de Mitterrand) by Antoine Laurain was translated by Gallic Books – there are several people credited at the end for ‘voicing’ certain characters. I’m not sure exactly what this means but I’m guessing that there were several people involved in its translation, perhaps translating the account of different characters to give them distinctive voices. If this is the case, then it’s certainly an interesting approach to translation.

Set in 1980’s Paris, Daniel Mercier decides to treat himself to dinner out whilst his wife and son are away visiting family, and finds himself sitting in a brasserie next to none other than François Mitterrand, then president of France. On leaving the restaurant, the President forgets to pick up his hat, and in a moment of whimsy, Daniel picks it up and takes it away with him. He is very excited by the fact that he now has Mitterrand’s hat and is beside himself when he leaves it behind on a train journey. The hat is passed on to a young woman named Fanny who is on the way to meet her lover, whom she meets once a month as they embark upon a love affair that she feels is going nowhere. Next up is perfumier ‘the nose’ Pierre Aslan, who has spent many years living a numb existence, having lost his talent and inspiration for creating new scents. After another mix-up at the same brasserie visited by Daniel and Mitterrand, the hat falls on the head of Bernard – a man who suddenly realises his life is slipping away from him and going in a different direction than he would like, inadvertently shrugging off his right-wing acquaintances by asking that guests pronounce Mitterrand’s name correctly out of a show of respect for the President.

François Mitterrand pictured in the felt Homburg hat which is the star of Laurain's novel

François Mitterrand pictured in the felt Homburg hat which is the star of Laurain’s novel

This novel is a really charming account of a moment of fate in four people’s lives, the discovery of the hat, a magical object that when it is gifted into someone’s care, gives them a sense of empowerment and confidence and each person is left touched and positively influenced by wearing it. Just as Daniel thinks to himself “Wearing a hat gives you a feeling of authority over someone who isn’t” after having the confidence to speak up in an important meeting, each person feels strengthened by wearing it, and there are some lovely echoes throughout each account, of them looking at the hat, and the food that they eat in the brasserie described in the same way, suggesting that as destiny has been kind to the previous custodian of the hat, so will it be for the next. I enjoyed the story about Pierre Aslan the best, there was something a lot more magical about the effect it had on him and I loved the descriptions of the smells of the hat, adding another dimension to the tale that really brought it to life for me:

“The three smells were mingling and complementing each other in the heat. The perfect fusion, the ideal marriage. Pierre held his breath, then brought his face close to the hat. Time stood still […] The walls of the apartment seemed to disappear, then the paintings, the carpet, the television, the floorboards, the building, the block of houses, the quartier, the cars, the people, the pavements, the city and even the snow. Everything gone. There was nothing anymore. No 1986, no hours, no minutes.”

I was a little disappointed that the people who had been temporary custodians of the hat ended up communicating, by letter, as I quite liked the randomness of it all, the chance link between them and the way in which they may never know the true story of the hat, where it had come from and where it ended up. It seemed more magical that way. I did enjoy the epilogue at the end which puts a mischievous spin on all that has gone before and leaves you wondering about the hat and the power of the man who wore it.

President's Hat Design

Overall I thought this book was very enjoyable, charming and magical in places. It transports you to Paris in the 1980s and brings sights and tastes and smells to life. In addition to this I thought the design of the book was lovely, its thick textured cover and crisp pages, as well as the perforated bookmark on a flap on the back cover all make this a lovely little physical object, and one which I intend to pass on and share like Mitterrand’s hat!

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Evelyn Waugh Month Round-Up

Evelyn Waugh

So I have finally come to the end of my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and have enjoyed the books and the challenge.

I had plans to read more but I ended up reading four of his books, reviews of which can be found by clicking on the titles:

Scoop
Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
The Loved One

Each of these books was very different to the next, although they did have a similar stye to them. Ever-present is Evelyn Waugh’s satirical view of the rich and fashionable mainly in the period between the two World Wars. I thought he was so adept at capturing that lost generation, something that was summed up so succinctly in The Loved One that the characters “came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death”. I think Vile Bodies was my favourite of the four as it was such a hoot to read and was a bit of escapism, telling you about the crazy lives of the Bright Young Things.

I noticed that The Loved One is dedicated to Nancy Mitford. I don’t know why I never put these two writers together before – I’d only read Brideshead Revisited by Waugh and The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Mitford so perhaps I wasn’t in the most educated position. Their writing styles do have similarities, a certain eccentric wit that runs through the prose, dropping little in-jokes that are later alluded to and you feel like part of the in-crowd. If you are a fan of Waugh I’d suggest that Nancy Mitford might be a good author for you to read next.

I actually did a class in my final year of university called Literary Snobbery which was how I discovered Mitford. It was a brilliant course which I thoroughly enjoyed and one which exposed me to a lot of writers I hadn’t come across before. What I’m wondering is, where was Waugh on the course list? I think he would have fit in rather well!

I was joined in Evelyn Waugh Month by Heavenali, who read and reviewed Vile Bodies to coincide with my month of reading Waugh and I also stumbled across a review of another of Waugh’s books Decline and Fall over on Book Snob which was rather timely and has of course added another book to my list of books to read.

I really enjoyed doing this and hope to do the same in future with a different author – it’s such a great way to get to know an author, to read books by them in close succession. I have in my head W. Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene in mind but would love to hear any suggestions. Is there any particular author you would like to have a go at reading for a month? Perhaps someone whom you have always meant to read but have just never gotten round to it?

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Book Review: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

The Loved One

The last of my picks for Evelyn Waugh Month was The Loved One, a novella set in L.A. in the early forties, which follows the fate of a young Englishman Dennis Barlow and his attempts to acclimatise to America and to court a young corpse beautician Aimée, whom he meets whilst arranging a funeral for his friend. Dennis himself works in a mortuary, although nothing quite so grand as Whispering Glades where Aimée works, a land of archways and gardens and every kind of possibility to make sure that the ‘loved one’ is ushered from this world in style. Dennis deals with funerals for pets, and his occupation is something of a worry to the local ex-pats who commune at the cricket club to discuss English interests and the sorts of jobs suitably respectable for an English gentleman in America.

I read this novella in one sitting on a Saturday morning whilst eating a rather yummy plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami on toast. I may have been a little distracted by that! Sometimes when I read a book very quickly I feel like I barely take it in, I get a sense of it but I really just don’t get to know the characters or care about them too much. This is what happened with The Loved One – I read it and enjoyed it and found it to be quite different to other books by Waugh that I’ve read this month – the voice is there but the subject matter is different. The humour is very dark (not surprising when a lot of it takes place in funeral homes) and the characters are all a bit despicable in their own way. This is the first of Waugh’s books that I have read which is wholly set abroad and this is indeed one of the central issues explored, that of the difference between the Brits and the Americans, both equally exposed to Waugh’s satirical observations and descriptions. Its subtitle is in fact An Anglo-American Tragedy so that is not that big of an observation on my part!

The descriptions of Americans focus on their consumerism, shown by the gaudy commercialism of funerals, the ads for peaches and the slogans used by Dennis and Aimée in their funereal workplaces. Added to this was something that Waugh just cannot resist – journalists and how they influence people’s lives. Aimée writes to an agony uncle in a local newspaper when she is trying to make up her mind about her possible suitors – Mr Joyboy (the skilled mortician of Whispering Glades). Even when she does not wish her letters to be printed in the problem page, she still appeals to them for answers to her personal predicament, taking their advice as gospel and following it, which has tragic consequences. When her heart is broken this is not seen as particularly noteworthy as “it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture”, another commodity to be traded and disregarded.

What also stood out for me was this sense of the effect the Wars had on the characters, something that I had also felt when reading A Handful of Dust. Dennis seems quite apathetic to everything that goes on around him, even the cremations that he performs on a daily basis, highlighted perfectly by this quote after finding his friend dead:

“Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment. He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm’s length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death. Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters. The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.”

This proximity to the horrors of the Wars results in a numbness, and an inability to really feel much sympathy for anyone or anything, in stark contrast to the portrayal to his customers that he cares about their loss. This was a funny little book, and if you like your humour dark and beyond the pale then this may be just the ticket for you, it was something a bit more light-hearted to end my month on!

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Book Review: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

a handful of dust

Continuing on with my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh, last week I was reading A Handful of Dust. I seem to remember that it was the title of this book which appealed to me – which in fact was taken from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. This feels like a much more serious book, and I think I was ready for that after the heady abandon of the characters in Vile Bodies. That’s not to say they aren’t reckless in their own way, but they are slightly older, with more commitments in the way of family homes to run and children to care for. This makes their actions all the more shocking I think – there’s nothing particularly alarming about young singletons going out on the ran dan, but when it is done with a lack of regard to a family they have built up and are required to care for that is another matter altogether.

The story revolves around husband and wife, Tony and Brenda Last, who live out in the country in the Gothic manor that Tony has inherited. They spend their mornings lolling about, leaving their young son John in the care of a somewhat uncouth stable-hand, then reprimand him for using naughty words and saying rough things about those he meets. There is a listlessness to the Lasts – they don’t seem to do very much and it is not much of a surprise to me that Brenda becomes bored. She embarks on an affair with the dull John Beaver, who is never quite at ease in the Bloomsbury set, always waiting on last-minute invitations to dinners and events as he is known for being a single man and a readily available space-filler if someone cancels at short notice.

There were elements of this book which reminded me a little of Anna Karenina – a bored woman seduced by a young man and giving up a lot to be with him. Brenda is bored with her life, and escapes to London, spending more and more time away from home ‘studying’ and fobbing Tony off with excuses as to why she cannot come home. She completely abandons her child and it is clear that she doesn’t care much for him. It’s really hard to have much sympathy for any of the characters in this novel as they are all very flawed but they are so vague that they don’t even notice their own failings. Writing this review I almost feel that this novel left a strange feeling of malaise hanging over me, drawn in as I was by their stories.

That’s what Waugh does so well, capturing this generation between the wars that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The characters are from a slightly older generation than in Vile Bodies but the sentiments are the same; a listlessness and feeling of unreality.

After the frivolities of the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies, and the farcical comedy of errors that is Scoop, this came as something of a shock. It’s serious, but still retains a lot of elements which can be held up to ridicule. I almost would have liked for this book to be more realistic, more serious and grown-up, much as I’d like its characters to take a bit more responsibility. It’s almost as if nothing can be taken seriously again after the horror of the First World War. The beauty of what Waugh does in this book is to create these characters that are so affected by the War but they don’t even realise how affected they are.

I found the ending a bit odd and unbelievable. Like most people I’m sure, I thought that Tony was a bit wet and all too easily fooled by Brenda’s indiscretions. The moment that he finally does stand up to her feels like a big moment for the reader but leads on to him going on a strange journey into the heart of South America. I’d like to discuss this more but don’t want to give too much away! There is a particular part which Waugh had originally written as a short story called ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – it’s quite creepy but I think led Waugh down a well-trodden road of being slightly absurd. I really enjoyed this episode and found it absorbing and quite unsettling, but I’m not sure about how well it fit in to the story.

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Evelyn Waugh Month: The Loved One

Apologies on the delay on posting this week – it has been rather hectic with a lot going on and I feel like my reading and blogging mojo took a leave of absence. I’m finishing up my review of A Handful of Dust which I’ll post soon and I have one more little book to squeeze in on Evelyn Waugh Month – although I know it’s May already!

The final book I’ll be reading by Evelyn Waugh for my month of reading, is The Loved One. It’s quite a short one at 128 pages so I don’t think it will take me as long as A Handful of Dust. I also have a sneaking suspicion it will not be quite as serious!

The Loved One

The blurb:

“Following the death of a friend, poet and pets’ mortician Dennis Barlow finds himself entering into the artificial Hollywood paradise of the Whispering Glades Memorial Park. Within its golden gates, death, American-style, is wrapped up and sold like a package holiday. There, Dennis enters the fragile and bizarre world of Aimée, the naïve Californian corpse beautician, and Mr Joyboy, the master of the embalmer’s art …

A dark and savage satire on the Anglo-American cultural divide, The Loved One depicts a world where love, reputation and death cost a very great deal.”

I think it will be quite a surreal little book, and somewhere closer to Scoop in its absurdity than the other books I’ve read this month. Looking forward to it! After this book, I’ll post my review and do a little round-up on my thoughts on Evelyn Waugh Month overall.

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