Review | Fireflies, Luis Sagasti | Book of the Week

God, like fireflies, only shines in the darkness, wrote Schopenhauer.” – Fireflies (p. 71)

Fireflies by Luis Sagasti is a brief, existential history of the world in the form of eight essays knitted together by subtle connection points. An eclectic array of highbrow and pop cultural personalities are presented in a seemingly random manner but have common threads that carry an underlying message. Philosophy helps us live our lives, is a consolation: Wittgenstein and Habermas make an appearance; as does the celebrated author of haikus, Matsuo Basho.

An original and stimulating work of experimentalism, Fireflies is in the tradition of fellow Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino (who asserted that “the brain begins in the eye”), Roland Barthes and Michel Tournier. What is true and what is false? Are conspiracy theories grounded in any kind of reality? Is there a relationship between death and black holes? Can words express truth, and is perception reality?

Continue reading Review | Fireflies, Luis Sagasti | Book of the Week

Review | Tinderbox, Megan Dunn | Book of the Week

In the wake of Amazon’s Kindle it seemed unlikely that books would ever be banned: instead books are commodified, turned into movies and TV series, rated and recommended in Goodreads, their individual sales histories quantified on Nielsen Bookdata and in the fathomless depths of the Amazon Sales Ranking system. Even the Kindle was named by a branding consultant who suggested the word to Amazon because it means to light a fire. The branding consultant thought that ‘kindle’ was an apt metaphor for reading and intellectual excitement . . .” [p.6 Tinderbox]

The recent Arts Council England report into literary fiction which shows sales, advances and retail prices slumping over the last fifteen years, and the average writer scraping by on £11,000 a year, does not make for seasonal cheer. Clever novels like Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox could possibly offer literary heavyweights hope for the future.

The literary canon as fandom is booming, as the greats of literature are ideologised and hybridised as part of our shifting 21st Century cultural ecology. The symbiosis between cinema, television, computer games, popular music and comics is giving rise to all manner of new creations, blurring the lines between what is real, what is imagined, and interpretations thereof. The blinkered, bookish view that popular culture fans take no interest in literary classics is a false one. Amateur writers are inspired by a whole range of classic texts, from Homer and Shakespeare, to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five have all been reimagined and transformed – unsurprisingly, Harry Potter comes out on top with over 778670 stories. Continue reading Review | Tinderbox, Megan Dunn | Book of the Week

Review | So the Doves, Heidi James | Book of the Week

Why was he so curious? Perhaps it was partly because of her mystique, her hold over him, and partly because her world was not his. Were they really so different? Maybe they were and maybe he believed that if he could only figure her out, emulate her – her gestures, her attitude – then maybe he could be invincible, extraordinary, like her.”

The novel tells the story of Marcus Murray, “forty-ish with a small paunch and a few grey hairs,” and his fascination with gorgeous free-spirit, Melanie, who had disappeared when he was seventeen. “It’s as if she was a figment of my imagination . . .” Not only is there a dead body virtually on the first page, but also a missing person, presumed dead.

A stylish psychological thriller, So the Doves is concerned with the moral legacy of Thatcherism; truth and lies and the death of idealism; what is real and what is imagined; small town decay; violence and intolerance in their various ugly forms. Continue reading Review | So the Doves, Heidi James | Book of the Week

Review | Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel | Book of the Week

In this beautiful memoir of a life lived in and through translation, Mireille Gansel defines the process of bringing words from one language to another as a kind of seeking, tied to the land. Transhumance refers to the seasonal movement of a shepherd and his flock to another land, or humus. It is the opposite of settling and farming: it is a form of nomadism, a search for richer grass, and it provides an apt image for her own trajectory as a translator.” From the foreword by Lauren Elkin

Translation as Transhumance is a rich and resonant read. The lucid, concise prose of award-winning translator, Ros Schwartz, brings alive an exceptional life dedicated to translation as activism. At the book’s launch in Caravansérail, the French-English bookshop and gallery near Brick Lane in the East End, Mireille Gansel spoke to a packed audience about the adventure of translation, of how “it gives you something – a perception of the other,” and of how “Langue natale is not mother tongue, it is a native language. For me it means the language where you come to the world, where you are born to yourself, discover yourself – you are inside intimacy.” A powerful, humanitarian empathy lies beneath Gansel’s narrative. “You end up translating the spirit and the sense of what is underneath the words . . .” said Ros Schwartz, “This book articulated so many things for me that were half-formed ideas, thoughts, about what I do.” Continue reading Review | Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel | Book of the Week

Review | Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, Pete Ayrton (ed.) | Book of the Week

The city is destroyed, plundered. A very interesting city. Polish culture. An ancient, rich Jewish colony. These frightening bazaars, dwarfs in hooded coats, hoods and side-locks, the aged, a school street, ninety-six synagogues, all half-destroyed, and stories – American soldiers were here, oranges, cloth, thoroughfare, wire, deforestation and wasteland, endless barren land. Nothing to eat, no hope, war, everyone is equally bad, equally foreign, hostile, inhuman, before life was traditionally peaceful” – from Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary in which he describes his experiences with the Cossack cavalry during the Polish-Soviet war.

To actually feel what it was like to be caught up in the most momentous event of the 20th century, and to walk in the shoes of those who either stayed and wrote under the increasingly tricky conditions of censorship, or fled to become émigrés pining for a lost world, or visited from abroad wanting to see revolution in action . . . read Pete Ayrton’s anthology Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917. Of all the books marking this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution, this is the one to go for. Continue reading Review | Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, Pete Ayrton (ed.) | Book of the Week

Review | The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life, Clara Beaudoux | Book of the Week

I’d been drifting from one studio apartment to another for several years already. I didn’t feel at home anywhere. In July 2013 I ended up in this little place. And I never suspected that the secrets it concealed might one day lead to a book,” writes Clara Beaudoux in the preface to this unusual read.

The mixing up of genres and categories that is characteristic of the way we read online has gradually fed into new forms of writing ‘in print’. Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually (Gut gegen Nordwind, translated from the German by Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch) tells the story of an internet love affair through the emails of Leo and Emmi. Other Ways of Seeing (Un Autre Regard) is based on blogger Emma’s comic strip. Her take on news stories and accepted “truths” challenges the status quo and questions what liberté, égalité, fraternité really means in France today. Shaun Usher’s blog ‘Letters of Note, an online museum of notable letters’, was published in book form in 2013 to international acclaim. The internet is a numbers game: if you hit the jackpot, it’s life-changing. Continue reading Review | The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life, Clara Beaudoux | Book of the Week

Review | Green Lion, Henrietta Rose-Innes | Book of the Week

In the popular imagination, Africa is one great big game reserve where man can hunt to his heart’s content, relishing the thrill of the dangerous chase. Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest ernest hemingway big game hunterHemingway (that hackneyed darling of writing course instructors), recounted testosterone-fuelled tales of derring-do as they pursued their prey across the vast “uncivilized” plains of Africa. Roosevelt returned to the US with thousands of specimens – lions, elephants, rhinoceros – duly donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Disney’s film The Lion King is the second-highest-grossing Disney film of all time. It depicts all kinds of animals frolicking across great, untamed African landscapes devoid of human beings – whereas the reality is more likely to be that Africa becomes a great landscape empty of animals.

Green Lion is a deftly-executed novel about man and beast and extinction; about bereavement, animal magic and the human desire for connection. It opens with the mauling of volunteer zoo keeper, Mark Carolissen, who ends up in hospital in a coma. He was looking after a rare black-maned Cape Lion, Dmitri, kept in kept in captivity for breeding with lioness, Sekhmet. Visitors gawp in thrilling terror at the kings of the animal world, safe behind glass. Continue reading Review | Green Lion, Henrietta Rose-Innes | Book of the Week

Review | As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths | Book of the Week

What was the grand plan? Build a clifftop church and then hurry away back to London when it was finished? Or was he to remain and become a spiritual guide of some kind? He didn’t know . . .” 

Midlife crisis, existentialist angst, spiritual awakening, burnout, soul loss . . . the list of labels is a long one, but whatever the inner crisis, transformation or degeneration are among the possible outcomes.

Proctor McCullough and his business partner Jim are consultants on catastrophe – “futurology at its most pessimistic“. They run an “independent agency that analysed behaviour during terrible events and helped businesses plan better resolution strategies . . . Their small client base included corporations, broadcasters, and now the government.” He and his partner Holly, a solicitor for asylum seekers, have been together for 13 years and have six year old twins, Pearl and Walter. They live in a semi-detached Victorian house in Wandsworth. Continue reading Review | As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths | Book of the Week

Review | Travels in a Dervish Cloak, Isambard Wilkinson | Book of the Week

The next morning, standing in the doorway to see me off on my way to the north of Punjab, to the capital, Islamabad, the Begum strained with both hands to raise a heavy old leather-bound Koran under which I ducked to receive divine protection. She resembled a classical figure holding up a torch so that I might see the good in her country.”

Two great matriarchs loom over this memoir which flies over Pakistan like a magical flying carpet: Isambard Wilkinson’s grandmother, and her friend, Sajida Ali Khan a.k.a. the Begum, from Lahore in the Punjab. As a small boy visiting the Irish family home that is suffused with a “heady, dusty fragrance” and chock-full of Anglo-Indian mementoes dating back to the 19th century, a warm and intoxicating vision of another world offered an antidote to the cold austerity of boarding school. His first actual visit to Pakistan was with his grandmother in 1990, to attend a wedding of one of the Begum’s children; and then in 2006 as foreign correspondent. His desire to explore the country and live there eventually was cut short by kidney failure, dialysis and successful surgery when his brother gave him a kidney. Travels in a Dervish Cloak has been seven years in the making. Continue reading Review | Travels in a Dervish Cloak, Isambard Wilkinson | Book of the Week

Review | Your Father’s Room, Michel Déon | Book of the Week

The Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, walked past, a cigar clamped between his teeth, in an out-at-elbow suit with corkscrewing trousers and his jacket pockets stuffed with tokens he had forgotten to cash in on his way out of the gaming room. A woman walked a step ahead of him, not turning round. She had an imperious expression and a very mobile face and wore a boater with a black ribbon. She was dripping with jewellery. Blanche said to her son, ‘Look. That’s Mademoiselle Chanel. Thanks to her we can cut our hair short without looking like servants’.” [Your Father’s Room, p. 36]

French novelist Michel Déon was born in Paris and died in Galway in 2016 at the age of 97. Admirers of Fournier and Flaubert and the world according to Proust would love his writing which is pared down and, although quintessentially French, has a universal resonance. The author of more than fifty works of fiction and non-fiction, and a member of the Académie Française, Déon was also a member of the 1950s French literary movement, ‘Les Hussards’, founded by Roger Nimier to oppose Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre. (The group was named after Roger Nimier’s novel Le Hussard bleuThe Blue Hussar). The distinguished and controversial right-wing novelist, Paul Morand, was an inspirational figure for the group. “They form a fascinating quartet of original, cosmopolitan, witty minds, far superior to their British contemporaries, the Angry Young Men,” poet, novelist and translator, James Kirkup wrote in The Independent in 2001. Continue reading Review | Your Father’s Room, Michel Déon | Book of the Week