Our latest top 10 reads for March features new books from Kurdistan, Croatia, Tashkent, Latvia, the Caribbean, Iceland, Mexico, Kenya, and last but not least, England. At BookBlast® HQ we just love translation! This year’s Translation Prizes were awarded by the Society of Authors at the British Library, in recognition of outstanding translations from works in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish.
To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, Interlink are celebrating women’s voices and actions throughout the month. To find out more visit one of the following websites: www.interlinkbooks.com www.immigrantcookbook.net www.soupforsyria.com or www.palestineonaplate.net to place your order.
Butterfly Valley by Sherko Bekas trs. Choman Hardi (Arc Publications)
The acclaimed modern Kurdish poet, Sherko Bekas was the son of the poet Fayak Bekas. Born in Sulaymani in 1940, he joined the liberation movement in 1965, and worked for the Voice of Kurdistan radio station until he was forced into exile in 1986. After rebellion and civil war in 1980’s Iraq, and two devastating chemical attacks by Saddam’s regime killing over 100,000 Kurds, a semi-autonomous zone, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government, was established. Bekas returned to south Kurdistan in 1992.
Butterfly Valley is a “poetic response to the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish people in the 1980s.” It is one long poem which juxtaposes lyrical images of Bekas’ homeland set against scenes of death and suffering.
After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel, trs. Rosalind Harvey (MacLehose Press)
“My apartment is on 87th Street on the Upper West Side in New York City. It is a stone corridor very like a prison cell. I have no plants. All living things inspire in me an inexplicable horror, just as some people feel when they come across a newt of spiders. I find living things threatening; you have to take care of them or they die. In short, they take up time and attention, and I am not prepared to give those away to anyone.”
Claudio lives in New York with the submissive, quiet, and very wealthy Ruth. She makes few demands of him, while acquiescing to all his desires and indulging his obsessive, misogynistic nature.
A shy young Mexican woman moves to Paris to study literature. Cecilia has few friends, and a morbid fascination with watching the funerals taking place in the cemetery outside her apartment. She strikes up a friendship with a sickly young man but is eventually left alone in the city once again. Claudio meets Cecilia by chance when visiting a friend in Paris and their two very different worlds collide with transformative consequences.
The Ice Migration by Jacqueline Crooks (Peepal Tree Press)
Pat: “So I ask again, when is dead really dead? I grew up with my father’s stories, and to this day I can’t say if I believe in spirits. But I have my own stories to tell. Stories of things I can’t explain.“
Jacqueline Crooks, the Jamaican-born, British short-story writer focuses on migration and Caribbean cutlure. She is a Wasafiri Prize runner-up. Her Arts Council-funded Ice Migration project brings together the stories of a Jamaican family of mixed Indian and African heritage, moving back and forth in time. From Roaring River in rural Jamaica in 1908 where the descendants of African slaves make connections with new arrivals from Calcutta to work in the sugar cane fields, to Southall in 2013, where the Millers live alongside newer migrants from India, The Ice Migration is a poetic exploration of movement as central to the human condition, from the ancestors of the vanished Tainos in Jamaica who crossed the Behring Straits 40,000 years ago, who linger in spirit, to Tutus who is driven to separation from her family, to the constancy of moving on and ultimately return to Roaring River. The people of Jacqueline Crooks’ stories are deeply enmeshed in their African/Indian Jamaican world of dreams, visions, duppies and spiritual presences that connect them across time and place.
Creole Chips and Other Writings: Short Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Essays by Edgar Mittelholzer (Peepal Tree Press)
In the 1950s-60s the Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer paved the way for other Caribbean novelists to make a successful career out of writing. When he completed his first work of fiction Creole Chips in 1937 he joined a line of pioneer writers in the era of modern Caribbean literature, with the West Indian novel still to establish itself and make a mark on the world. Works like Corentyne Thunder (1941) and A Morning at the Office (1950) heralded novels of realism in the Caribbean. Mittlehozer, Lamming and Naipaul showed Americans the Caribbean as they could never see it for themselves. [source: Edgar Mittelholzer 1909-65 and the shaping of his novels, Juanita Anne Westmaas)
This anthology of his hitherto uncollected writings brings together his early collection of sketches of Georgetown life, Creole Chips, his speculative novella, The Adding Machine about the consequences of greed and disinterest in the welfare and feelings of others, twenty-four short stories, five plays, published and unpublished poetry and essays covering travel, literature and his personal beliefs. Mittelholzer writes in a variety of genres (speculative fiction, crime, and the Gothic). It is work written largely before he came to England where helped to establish Caribbean writing. He was associated with BBC programme Caribbean Voices which broadcast and launched several West Indian writers in the UK.
Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena trs. Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press)
“My mother knew nothing of the world beyond. She would pointedly close her door when the programme Vremya – ‘Time’ – came on television, with lisping Leonid Brezhnev. She didn’t read the Riga’s Voice newspaper for which a long queue formed on the corner of Gorky Street every evening. The lunchtime queue at the meat and dairy shop was equally long. You could buy the popular so-called doctor’s sausage and butter there – but she had no idea of this domestic world. Yet beside the mountains of medical textbooks lay a half-rad Moby Dick. It spoke of the longing for a life of the mind that remained beyond her grasp.”
Latvia, October 1944: after an occupation lasting over three years, Hitler’s troops withdraw and the Red Army enters Riga which is where this novel in two parts opens. A mother and a daughter living in the Soviet-ruled Baltics in the decades following the Second World War have an intense and tormented relationship, marked by maternal depression and attempts to stop self-destructive tendencies. They are joined by the grandmother whose narrative travels between Riga, Leningrad and the Latvian countryside, telling of collective memory and feminine emancipation. Symbolic of the time and of the weighty oppression looming over everyone is the milk that, denied by the mother to her daughter in her first days of life, is no longer the lifeblood but a bitter, disgusting liquid. Only over time will milk be able to taste sweeter.
In this story of three generations of women, the grandmother gives her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to provide – love, and a zest for life.
Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir trs. Brian FitzGibbon (Pushkin Press)
Winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize
“The table in Tryggvi’s Tattoo parlour is covered with small glass jars of multicolorued inks and the young man asks me if I’ve chosen a picture yet or whether I’m thinking of a personal pattern or symbol? He himself is covered in tattoos all over his body. I observe a snake winding up his neck and wrapping itself around a black skull. Ink flows through his limbs and the triceps of the arm that holds the needle sports a coil of triple barbed wire.”
His wife has left him, his mother is slipping deeper into dementia, and his daughter is no longer who he thought. So he decides to buy a one-way ticket to a chaotic, war-ravaged country and put an end to it all. But on arriving at Hotel Silence, he finds his plans – and his anonymity – begin to dissolve under the foreign sun. Now there are other things that need his attention, like the crumbling hotel itself, the staff who run it, and his unusual fellow guests. And soon it becomes clear that Jónas must decide whether he really wants to leave it all behind; or give life a second chance, albeit in an unexpected way.
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani (Saqi Books)
“The villagers clasped their hands and wailed: Yu Kiini! Come and see strips of iron that those strange men planted seasons earlier – which left undisturbed, had grown into a monster gliding through the land. The gigantic snake was a train and the year was 1901, an age when white men were still discovering the world for their kings and queens in faraway lands. So when the railway superintendent, or simply Master as he was known to many, peered out the window of this first-class cabin that misty morning, his mind did not register the dazzled villagers who dropped their hoes and took off, or led their herds away from the grazing fields in sheer terror of the strange creature cutting through their land.”
1963. Kenya is on the verge of independence from British colonial rule. In the Great Rift Valley, Kenyans of all backgrounds come together in the previously white-only establishment of the Jakaranda Hotel. The resident musician is Rajan Salim, who charms visitors with songs inspired by his grandfather’s noble stories of the railway construction that spawned the Kenya they now know.
After Rajan Salim is kissed by a mysterious woman in a shadowy corridor one evening, he is unable to forget the taste of her lavender-flavoured lips, and sets out to find her. On his journey he stumbles upon the murky, shared history of his grandfather, owner of the Jakaranda and former colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and British preacher Richard Turnbull, who were implicated in the controversial birth of a child. Rajan’s discoveries open his eyes about the birth not just of a child, but of an entire nation.
Ukelele Jam by Alen Meskovic (Seren)
Human migration is set to be the defining issue of the twenty-first century. Mass migration to cities is the new reality. Ukulele Jam tells the story of Miki, a Croatian teenager, and his family escaping the Yugoslav war. They relocate to a former Yugoslav people’s army hotel on the Croatian coast, which serves as a refugee camp. War is raging not even 150 kilometres away, and alongside them tourists are sunbathing on the beach.
Miki has hung on to a couple of cassettes, and listens to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, Deep Purple and heavy metal bands. He has a few things belonging to his adored elder brother Neno, who stayed behind. Gone are the times when they named themselves after comic heroes: Dr. No and Captain Micky. Neno’s unresolved fate overshadows every day in the camp. His mother sinks into a deep depression, his father listens obsessively to the news on the radio. When questioned, Miki is only able to talk about the past when he is drunk, and what he has to say remain open to interpretation.
Paralysis, resignation, disagreement and reprisals are rife amongst the adults. As he has left his certificates in his home country, Miki cannot attend the grammar school. He reluctantly attends a vocational college and manged to make some friends. Then he finds The Ukulele, a music shack in the local town that becomes his home from home. Miki wants to come to terms with the new reality. He hangs around girls with his new friends, listens to music and parties around campfires on the beach. But he soon has to admit that there are no places of refuge for young people either. The young tourists are quickly gone again, the admired rock stars from their homeland allow themselves to be roped in for propaganda purposes, and one after another his friends get visas for Sweden, Canada or Australia. Miki wants to emigrate to Sweden with his friends, but his parents can’t bear to leave their homeland.
Talking to Women by Nell Dunn (Silver Press)
With an introduction by Ali Smith
Nell Dunn’s documentary-style fiction about the lives of working-class women in London was linked to the so-called ‘angry young men’ school, a group which was disowned by most of those whom the media associated with it. Her work ranges from sketches and novels as well as interviewing and plays and monologues. The hallmarks of her writing are an ear for dialogue and a straightforward treatment of women’s sexuality. Her two most famous books are Up the Junction and Poor Cow which was made into a film (1967) directed by Ken Loach.
Talking to Women is a book of conversations with women, originally published in 1965. The Silver Press reprint is a welcome and much needed new edition, published to coincide with international women’s day.
Here is an extract of Dunn’s interview with a twenty-six-year-old single mother who works in a butter factory.
NELL: Your husband was your husband and that was it.
KATHY: That was it, yes. You were married and you were married.
NELL: You mean people didn’t carry on much then?
KATHY: Well they did carry on but you didn’t hear much of it then as what you do now. As for Lesbians, my mum never heard of anything like that. Like just lately, you know? My mum never knew what it was.
KATHY: Oh there is more, yes. Definitely. I mean everywhere you go.
NELL: Do you see Lesbians in Battersea?
KATHY: Oh yes. There’s lots in Battersea now. What about that girl who was in the pub and you said you’d like to sketch her one night, she was singing on the mike, that girl who was a prostitute. What about her? I mean she’s married, got two kids, she’s been married twice got two kids, she was on the game and she’s turned Lesbian. Who’d ever believe that?
I was out the other night somewhere, I was sitting in the pictures and I was shocked, she was sitting down in front of me, kissing and cuddling with this –
NELL: With a girl?
KATHY: Yes, she could have been no more than twenty, Very very timid-looking thing and she’s a great big sort isn’t she? . . . . . .
The Devil’s Dance by Hamid Ismailov trs. Donald Rayfield (Tilted Axis Press)
“On 31 December 1937, a freezing winter’s day, Abdulla was taken from his home and put in prison, neither charged nor tried . . . They had broken into his house, ignoring the shrieks and cries of his children and wife who had gathered round the dinner table for the New Year’s feast. The NKVD men overturned the dinner table and stormed through the house, ransacking everything, rummaging through Abdulla’s books and papers . . . So he did not begin his narrative with the early-ripening bunch of grapes in the shade of a broad leaf. Instead, Abdulla began his novel by describing a typical game of bozkhashi, where players fight for a goat carcass . . .”
In the Tashkent prison, to distract himself from the physical and psychological torment of beatings and mindless interrogations at the hands of the Soviet secret police, Abdulla attempts to mentally reconstruct the novel he was writing at the time of his arrest – based on the tragic life of the Uzbek poet-queen Oyxon, married to three khans in succession, and living as Abdulla now does, with the threat of execution hanging over her. As he gets to know his cellmates, Abdulla discovers that the Great Game of Oyxon’s time, when English and Russian spies infiltrated the courts of Central Asia, has echoes in the 1930s present, but as his identification with his protagonist increases and past and present overlap it seems that Abdulla’s inability to tell fact from fiction will be his undoing.
The Devil’s Dance – by an author banned in Uzbekistan for twenty-seven years – brings to life the extraordinary multilingual culture of 19th century Turkestan, a world of lavish poetry recitals, brutal polo matches, and a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse Islam rarely described in western literature. A digressive, intricately structured novel, it is dense with allusion, studded with quotes and sayings, and threaded through with modern and classical poetry.
Ismailov’s novel The Dead Lake, a haunting Russian tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War, is published by Peirene Press. It was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 and included in the Guardian Readers’ Books of the Year 2014.
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