Here is our New Year round up of eclectic top ten reads for independent minds to delight and inspire you, happy new year, bonne année, felice anno nuovo, feliz año nuevo, ευτυχισμένο το νέο έτος, szczęśliwego nowego roku!
Hell in Paradise
“At the moment, he no longer knows why he is here in this spot alongside a national highway, outside this brothel on the very edge of the SchengenTop 10 Reads Area. Perhaps, instead of discussing the wall inside, he might find a body like Christina’s? Not her face, not, he wouldn’t recognise it in that place. But maybe her perfume? Just a woman’s perfume, a scent, just her scent, please, please tell me if there mightn’t be, here in this place, in the countryside, on the frontier of Europe, a girl wearing Rykiel Woman.”
A severed head is found on the Greek border near a wall planned to stop Middle Eastern immigrants crossing from Turkey. Intelligence Agent Evangelos wants the truth about the murder, human trafficking into Greece, and about the corruption surrounding the wall’s construction. More than a mystery novel and a political thriller, The Greek Wall evokes the problems of the West incarnated in Greece: isolationism, fear of immigration, economic collapse and corruption. Paradise for tourists can become a hell for immigrants.
Poetic, pungent and atmospheric, The Greek Wall is a good example of how compelling crime fiction gives insights into the detective and the society in which they live.
The issues dealt with by Nicolas Verdan in The Greek Wall are close to his heart: “As a journalist, I went to Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, the Middle East, Central Asia, following or crossing the roads of migrants. My Greek grandparents were confronted by forced emigration of sorts. When my mother was a baby, the Greek civil war had begun. There was no choice but to leave your village to go to Athens, if necessary on foot. An exodus like the people from Syria and Iraq leaving everything behind: home, family, friends, skies, landscapes, the brilliance of olive trees in the sun. My grandmother came back to her village in the Peloponnese ten years after leaving it. It was only 350 kilometres from the capital, but coming back to your abandoned homeland was like coming to a foreign country. Devastation, no time, no money. Such was life in the 1950s in Greece. We must never forget how much rural exodus has affected the mentality of modern Greece.”
How to Make America Great Again
Contributors: Wajdi al-Ahdal, Anoud, Najwa Binshatwan, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, Rania Mamoun, Fereshteh Molavi, Zaher Omareen.
“The lounge, like the rest of the airport, is a transitory place. But for me, it has become more than that. I’ve been here for over a week now, glued to this seat which I also use as a bed. The good thing about airports is the freedom to sit wherever you like; no one asks you to leave or to move on. I sit here day in, day out, utterly bereft of everything. The few coins I brought with me are already spent and my pockets are now empty. I ate my last biscuit two days ago; half in the morning, half in the evening. All that remains is regret.” — from Rania Mamoun’s story, Bird of Paradise
In January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting all refugee admissions for 120 days and temporarily barring entry from Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Mass protests followed, and the order has since been blocked, revised and challenged by judges, politicians, activists and artists alike. But the fight is not yet over: in December, the US Supreme Court allowed the full enforcement of the ban, despite its bias against Muslims.
War, hunger, bureaucracy, lost in transit . . . Banthology brings together seven specially commissioned stories from the so-called “banned nations”. It is prophetic about our own time. The writing is varied, vibrant and superb. The collection brings together a brilliant line up of writers I have not read before.
Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s story Jujube made me think of Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow which follows waves of refugees as they are driven from their homes by war or environmental disasters. “It’s night when I’m wakened by a metallic noise like that of frenzied cicadas. I look through the cracks in the wall and quickly recoil: nearby houses are on fire. I rush outside and see women ruffled like wild birds, I see adult men falling like ripe fruit, I see the neighbourhood stormed by men meaner than stray dogs, abnormal creatures, with agate-like eyes blacker than the bottom of hell. The air is saturated with sulphur and dirty water; I move past the flames as lightly as a yellow butterfly.”
Abstract Expressionism on the Page
The second volume of John Ashbery’s (1927-2017) collected poems span a crucial and prolific decade in his life and work. He had met Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara at Harvard and they became known as the ‘New York School of Poets.’ In 1955 Ashbery went to France on a Fulbright Scholarship and spent much of the next decade there, including several years as art critic of the International Herald Tribune and Paris correspondent of ArtNews magazine. His 2008 translation of Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. Ashbery produced over twenty volumes of poetry including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The most decorated American poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, National Book Award, Feltrinelli Prize, etc, he was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets
Of who we and all they are
You all now know. But you know
After they began to find us out we grew
Before they died thinking us the causes
Of their acts. Now we’ll not know
The truth of some still at the piano, though
They often date from us, causing
These changes we think we are. We don’t care
Though so tall up there
In young air. But things get darker as we move
To ask them: Whom must we get to know
To die, so you live and we know?
The Pursuit of Oblivion
“There were six letters. All written by different senders but all sent to the same recipient: Edda. The handwriting was alike. Not in their style but in other ways, different ways. How each writer experienced time, for example. This conditioned the lettering. They wrote about simple things, made promises, gave their opinions, recalled things, all backed up by the soundness of a syllogism. If I sniffed the letter, I could smell the hand that had written it.”
This collection of seven short stories by writer and poet Jorge Consiglio reads as a series of snapshots about people in crisis and their responses. “Survivors in a hostile world,” each undergoes a profound change.
Road rage; illness and how it affects one’s view of life and other people; an abandoned house, an old man in a café, a party and a car crash; a fat reduction clinic, an obsession with overweight people and an illicit gay affair; a long distance runner training early one morning stumbles upon swarms of dead flies and rotting flesh; a mangy stray dog comes to a brutal end in a Lord of the Flies scenario . . .
Damian Hirst, The Pursuit of Oblivion, 2004
“I like to think there are hidden connections in life. Any act, for reasons unknown, can be connected to another act.” Consiglio’s strange and unsettling stories are linked by threads of subtle violence and perversion. I was hooked and read to the end like a literary rubbernecker. What seems ordinary can switch in a second to an unexpected situation with no clear conclusion – such is the uncontrollable nature of life.
The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero trs. Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)
“My grandfather was always scared. Even when he was calmly sitting in front of the TV watching his favourite programme, eyes wide and eyebrows raised, he seemed to be running away from something. He wasn’t a coward, it’s not that. I think it’s just what happens to people who build their own houses.”
In a homogenised, anonymous, everyman suburb, each house has a room reserved for the President. Basements are not allowed since bad things happen there. Well furnished, tidy and clean, the President’s room is not used but is kept ready and waiting for a visit, which may or may not happen. No one knows why all this is so. It is how things are and people seem to be accepting of it. Nothing is clear or explained – everything is vague. The boy-narrator is puzzled by and questions this status quo as he observes family life, and his little brother who has sudden, unexplained fevers. What will become of him?
A house defines the people who live in it; and the psychological house says much about its inhabitants. Any house a person has lived in becomes something more than purely physical: it is their home, a personal space that is (ostensibly) their private domain. It is the place they return to, and where they can escape to or else withdraw from the everyday world. The house is also a symbol for something much greater than the sum of its parts.
So: what if the President has a room in your house – what does that say about personal freedom and the society you live in? If the President comes visiting, why is it you he chooses, and not someone else? Are you under surveillance?
A political allegory of the psychology of dictatorship, The President’s Room is written in succinct, limpid prose. In just 82 pages, Argentine journalist and novelist, Ricardo Romero, creates a psychological sucker punch as the surreal sense of anxiety and unease about what is real, and what is not, escalates. No wonder Romero has been compared to Kafka and Calvino.
Today Whistle, Tomorrow Nothing
Farewell Cowboy by Olja Savicevic (Istros Press)
“Behind the curtain I hear the clink of tin plates and eggs being broken, milk gurgling.
‘Did you know that swallow-fish moult when they come back south from the north. Their feathers fall out and they grow scales and fins so they can swim again.’
I sometimes tell her idiocies like this to amuse myself.
‘Everything’s possible after Chernobyl,’ she replies, beating the egg yolk, milk and sugar together briskly. ‘The Miskovic woman from Lower Street gave birth to one child with three fathers’.”
Farewell Cowboy is a tough yet poetic novel by one of Croatia’s leading writers. Dada leaves Zagreb and returns to her home town on the Adriatic coast in order to unravel the mystery of her brother, Daniel’s, death. Young smart and popular he had thrown himself under a train. In her search to unravel the mystery, Dada encounters an array of oddball characters and is seduced by a young gigolo taking part in a film shoot. He is the key to solving the mystery.
In her debut novel, Savicevic transposes the genre of a traditional Western to the contemporary world challenging the all-powerful heroes of childhood and questioning what constitutes heroism today. The shabby suburbs of her seaside home town redolent of transient glamour and small-town dreams provide the perfect backdrop to this bittersweet and oddly seductive tale of loss and redemption.
Death and the Maiden
The House with the Stained-glass Window by Zanna Sloniowska trs. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (MacLehose Press)
“Mama used to undress in front of a tall mirror, never making me feel in the least embarrassed, and then she’d stand there naked, examining herself, often singing as she did so. I would sit nearby, visually stroking her white freckles, skin, her small, firm breasts, and her longlegs coated in little red hairs. She was my own personal Snow Queen, as well as all the naked Venuses and clothed Madonnas rolled into one from the albums on the bookshelves.”
In 1989, Marianna, the beautiful star soprano at the Lviv opera, is shot dead in the street as she leads the Ukrainian citizens in their protest against Soviet power. Only eleven years old at the time, her daughter tells the story of their family before and after that critical moment – including, ten years later, her own passionate affair with an older, married man.
Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening as she matures under the influence of her relatives, her mother’s former lover, her city and its fortunes.
The story of four generations of women, this is a must-read in this centenary year celebrating women’s rights and inspiring women throughout history.
Animal Sculptor by Predestination
A hypnotic novel inspired by the strange and fascinating life of sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of the fabled car maker. With World War One closing in and the Belle Époque teetering to a close, Bugatti leaves his native Milan for Paris, where he encounters Rodin and casts his bronzes at the same foundry used by the French master. In Paris and then Antwerp, Bugatti obsessively observes and sculpts the baboons, giraffes and panthers in the municipal zoos, finding empathy with their plight, identifying with their life in captivity. As the Germans drop bombs over the Belgian city, the zoo authorities are forced to make a heart-wrenching decision about the fate of the caged animals, and Bugatti is stricken with grief from which he’ll never recover.
Rembrandt Bugatti’s work, now being rediscovered after decades of neglect, is displayed in major art museums around the world and routinely fetches huge sums at auction. Edgardo Franzosini recreates the young artist’s life with intense lyricism, passion and sensitivity.
Real Fictions vs. Fake News
Tales of Two Londons: Stories from a Fractured City (ed) Claire Armitstead (Or Books)
Contributors include: Akwaaba Writing Group, Omar Alfrouh, Kinga Burger, Duncan Campbell, John Crace, Tom Dyckhoff, Inua Ellams, Jo Glanville, Ben Judah, Sarah Maguire, Daljit Nagra, Andrew O’Hagan, Ruth Padel, Ferdous Sadat, Jane Shilling, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith.
“This anthology sets out to mirror London’s diversity by ensuring that more than a third of the voices are of those not born in the UK. It aims to reflect the fact that any city is the sum of its people, and the intelligence they offer is various and sometimes oblique. How do the triumphs of community activism square with the curse of gentrification? What is it like to give birth shortly after arriving in a strange city? How does Londoners’ love of cats and dogs feel to someone who has lost everything? Memoir, reportage, history and several different genres of poetry keep company in its pages, sparking off each other in challenging, invigorating and inspiring ways.” —from the Introduction
London today is embattled as rarely before in peacetime. On one side the city has flourished, cementing its standing as a world leader in business and culture. Infrastructure investment outstrips anywhere else in the UK, property prices have soared, technology and new media industries have burgeoned. On the other, poverty remains endemic, homelessness and the privations of low paid work are evident everywhere, gang violence is rampant, and the burnt-out hulk of the Grenfell Tower housing block stands as an ugly reminder that, even in the wealthiest areas, inequality can be so acute as to be murderous.
Claire Armitstead has drawn together a rich collection of fiction, reportage and poetry to capture the schisms defining the contemporary city. In a metropolis with nearly 40% of its population born outside the country, Tales of Two Londons eschews what Armitstead labels a “tyranny of tone,” emphasizing voices from beyond conventional arenas.
Alongside writers with established reputations, there are stories from unpublished immigrants and refugees, from people working with deprived young people, from Kurdish activists, and from tenants’ groups. Taken together, their stories portray the fabric of the metropolis: its housing, its food, its pubs, its buses, even its graveyards. Above all, this superb anthology draws on the rich potpourri of people who inhabit today’s London, both lamenting the unequal way the city treats them and celebrating the vibrant urban life their co-existence delivers.
The Heart of the Matter
In the Light of the Self: Adi Shankara and the Yoga of Non-dualism by Alistair Shearer (White Crow Books)
Adi Shankara was an early 8th century South Indian philosopher and sage credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism. He consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta who offers a vision of life as the manifestation of an absolute, non-dual consciousness transcending all time, space and causation, and it provides the direct means to experience this divine ground of all being as our own Self.
Far from being some dry and dusty ‘Indian philosophy’, Advaita is a system of practical psychology, based on meditation and insight, drawing the practitioner into profound consideration of their own status and what it means to be a human being. As such, it is of immediate relevance to us today, torn as we are by questions of identity and purpose, and the struggle to resolve the age-old problems of ignorance, suffering and inequality.
This book by Alistair Shearer presents the teachings of Adi Shankara in a highly approachable form through modern translations of his original writings, set in the lively context of his life and mission.
An authority on Vedic knowledge, Shearer’s publications include translations of the Sanskrit texts: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Selections from the Upanishads.
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