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BookBlasts® | Top 10 Reads for Self-isolating Minds | April 2020

According to HISTORY UK, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, “infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide – about one-third of the planet’s population – and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.” Luckily, however horrific the current pandemic, numbers such as those have not yet been reached, with 2,214,461 people declared infected 148,979 deaths and 560,309 people who have recovered at the time of writing. [Worldometer]

As Covid-19 wreaks havoc on all parts of the publishing and writing worlds – the Guardian’s listing of major cancellations makes for sobering reading – book fairs are starting to operate online, the Society of Authors has just announced its Home Festival (20 April to 1 May 2020), and The Royal Society of Literature is sending out an Only Connect thrice-weekly letter to subscribers, “helping us to stay close to one another in these times of isolation”. How sad it is to hear that the Chilean author, Luis Sepúlveda, has died of the dreaded virus at the age of seventy.

Here are some links to some helpful inititatives for writers and small arts businesses:
Arts Council England has announced an Emergency Response Package of £160 million for people/organisations in the cultural sector.
Various organisations, including the Society of Authors, are working together to offer a £330,000 Authors’ Emergency Fund for small grants to help support authors affected financially.
Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy is offering a free ‘Power Hour’ of consultancy support every day (booking required).

To add to the outpouring of daily bookish recommendations from every quarter, here is our Top 10 pot pourri of very good reads for self-isolating minds to stimulate, divert and soothe, depending on shifting moods and desires, in no particular order.

Despite the grimness of lockdown, it is to be hoped that this “enforced leisure” could at least lead to more books being read and a flowering of creativity!

@maclehosepress @dkpublishing @WorldEdBooks @Ofmooseandmen @LittleIslandBks @Carcanet @hoperoadpublish @FitzcarraldoEds @QuartetBooks

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits | Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf | MacLehose Press, 2020 | Winner of the Agnon Prize 2015 | Fiction buy here

Why would any Jew live in a village these days? Whoever did so must be either mad or a recluse. Since when is what most Jews find agreeable not good enough for the Keismanns? What is wrong with a place like Motal, a proper town with a synagogue and a cemetery and a bathhouse and a mikveh? What could they possibly want among the goyim in the heartlands of fields and bogs? Who will protect their home from Jew-hating thugs?” – Yaniv Iczkovits

Total immersion in a historical novel embracing the feminist picaresque is just what is needed to keep angst at bay, as the UK lockdown is extended for “at least” three weeks. The Slaughterman’s Daughter looks set to be an irresistible read, and comes highly commended. And the author has an inspiring back story: in 2002, he was an inaugural signatory of the “combatants’ letter”, in which hundreds of Israeli soldiers affirmed their refusal to fight in the occupied territories, and he spent a month in military prison as a result.

With boundless imagination and a vibrant style, Yaniv Iczkovits creates a colourful family drama that spins nineteenth-century Russia out of control, and he delivers a heroine of unforgettable grit. Iczkovits wields his pen with wit and panache. A remarkable and evocative read.” – David Grossman

In The Slaughterman’s Daughter, Iczkovits presents an original take on the historical novel which recreates – with a shrewd but affectionate look back at a lost world – Jewish life in the Russian empire at the end of the nineteenth century. The story’s plot, characters, narrative style and the narrator’s perspective are characterized by historical realism but also an element of fantasy. It is also worth noting the novel’s brilliant insights, its winning humour, and especially the highly effective and readable blend of our vibrant, supple modern Hebrew and a distant, forgotten way of life. This is a novel of unquestionable uniqueness.” – Dr David Weinfeld, Dr Shira Stav, Bilhah ben Eliyahu, Judges’ Committee of the Agnon Prize

What’s Really Happening to our Planet? by Tony Juniper | Dorling Kindersley, 2016 | Non fiction buy here

Ours is a world of looming challenges and . . . limited resources. Sustainable development offers the best chance to change our course.” – Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General

Divided into three sections – Drivers of Change, Consequences of Change and Bending the Curves  – this book is essential reading in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic that throws into sharp relief economic inequalities and the unsustainable explosive population growth from 2.5 billion to 6 billion since the second half of the 20th century, coupled with rising demand for resources, and the consequences of political short termism and greed.

New levels of international cooperation to halt and reverse environmental degradation and the way infectious diseases emerge are required. Suggestions are made at the end of the book to restore balance to the ecosystem, develop a new mindset and create a more balanced economy. Illustrated with clear, informative graphics and underpinned by the latest scientific evidence, the facts are simply explained, to chilling effect. Will politicians and corporations let go of the pursuit of profit, regardless of the broader consequences? It remains to be seen.

A Life Without End by Frédéric Beigbeder, translated from the French by Frank Wynne | World Editions, 2020 | Biographical Fiction buy here

How long does it take the light to wane when the star no longer exists? How long does it take a telephone company to delete a corpse’s voicemail greeting? There is a gap between death and extinction: stars are proof that it is possible to shine after death. Once this light gap has passed, comes the moment when the radiance of a bygone star flickers like the flame of a candle about to gutter out. The glow falters, the star grows weary, the voicemail falls silent, the fire trembles. If you study death attentively you will see that a dead star shimmers a little less than a sun that is still alive.” – Frédéric Beigbeder

59 million people die every year. But Beigbeder refuses to submit to such a fate, and sets off instead to discover the secret to eternal life. His journalistic investigation morphs into a work of literature – “a book of ‘non-fiction science’; a novel in which all the scientific developments xciters edited g de chamberet bookblasthave been published in Science or Nature.”

Beigbeder is as irreverent and rebellious and original as when I first read him in 1994, and went on to publish him for the first time in English in the anthology, XCiTés, published in 1999, showcasing a new generation of French writers. He has lost none of his self-deprecating humour and mischievous attitude underpinned by an eclectic body of knowledge; quite the contrary, he has matured and honed his skills. Twenty years ago he despaired of making love last – today he despairs of making life last . . .

Having already highlighted the French edition in January 2018, the full review can be read HERE

Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught | Bluemoose Books, 2020 | Fiction buy here  

It used to be called the General Lunatic Asylum. Where they put the people like us. There are many lifers here. They give them routine and mahogany; croquet on the lawns and medications to soothe. And bars on the sash windows, which have been denuded of cords, just in case. They must have lost the odd one, surely, but records of lives, as I have discovered, and as I will show you here, can go awry.” – Anna Vaught

saving lucia anna vaught coverMany years ago I was involved in the publication of a profoundly disturbing book, Portraits of the Insane: the case of Dr. Diamond, bringing together some of the most remarkable photographs (mostly of women) taken in the nineteenth century of patients at Springfield Hospital, the former Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. From one generation to the next, women have been particularly subject to firm rules on how to behave when crazy.

Doris Lessing wrote, “There’s no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” Saving Lucia is inspired by some of the women in the history of psychiatry whose identities have been rewritten or obliterated by the rhetoric of men, namely: Violet Gibson, Lucia the beautiful daughter of James Joyce abandoned in an asylum, Blanche Wittmann, and Bertha Pappenheim (Anna O as a case study).  Anna imaginatively fills in the gaps in these women’s lives, giving voice to individuals whose screams and whispers can no longer be heard, whilst asking the question: how do we define madness?

Forgetting by Gabriel Josipovici | Little Island Press / Carcanet, 2020 | Essays buy here

forgetting gabriel kosipovici bookblast diaryThe brain, we have learned, is a powerfully abstracting as well as a powerfully concretising force. And we are also coming to understand the large part learning and the expectations of society play in whatever we think of as purely natural experiences.” – Gabriel Josipovici

Literary polymath and man of letters, Gabriel Josipovici is his usual dazzling, erudite self in this brief but pithy volume of 144 pages in which, taking his cue from Beckett – “only he who forgets remembers” – he writes about the “fear of forgetting” and the private and public aspects of memory. Starting with a description of the terror of Alzheimer’s amongst friends and relatives, he then looks at how reticence can be wrongly admired when it is a repressive act of concealment . . . Nazi atrocities . . . Nietzsche and the need to sleep . . . burying the dead . . . Remembrance Day ceremonies . . . the invisibility of memorial monuments . . . and photographs . . . and letting go. Laced with literary references from Homer and Hamlet to Proust, Faulkner and Wallace Stevens, Jonathan Sacks, Jean Echenoz, and others, Forgetting is a thought-provoking read, perfect for lockdown contemplative rumination.

His exclusive and extensive interview with me for BookBlast Diary can be read HERE

On Terrorism: Conversations with My Daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins | Small Axes / HopeRoad Publishing, 2020 | Non fiction buy here  

on terrorism tahar ben jellounThere are many great Arab poets and writers who are unknown. It seems that the culture of a country depends on its politico-economic situation. Today Arabic is considered the language of two hundred million people, and Persian, which has produced such great poetry, that of the mullahs in Tehran. Both have become minority languages. At present the gaze of the West has turned towards the Far East, and suddenly people are discovering the cultures of Japan and China. There is nothing one can do about this state of affairs – as long as the image of Arab countries is politically murky, Arab culture will suffer the consequences.” – Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Paris Review

Moroccan-French novelist, essayist and journalist, Tahar Ben Jelloun has written extensively about Moroccan culture, the immigrant experience, human rights, and sexual identity. An author who intervenes in politics, his clear-eyed understanding about what has happened in the last ten years is insightful and illuminating.

Racism explained to my daughter, published by the late André Schiffren at the New Press in 1999, was written to help adults answer their children’s questions on racism after Tahar Ben Jelloun took his ten-year-old daughter to a street protest against anti-immigration laws in Paris, and she asked one question after the other: “What is racism? What is an immigrant? What is discrimination?

Now, On Terrorism: Conversations with My Daughter, takes the form of a discussion between the author and his teenage daughter. Children are growing up in a world in which terrorism in its many aspects is a salient cultural phenomenon. Returning to the origins of the word “terrorism” its meaning and all that implies some of the bloodiest episodes in history are revisited, as are the Paris terror attacks of 2015 and the currents of Islamist fundamentalism, which is the main focus of the narrative.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes |  Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020 | Shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize | Fiction buy here
Witches abound in literature, from Circe, to Hecate, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West and Hermione Granger. Since Trump’s election, sales of novels, poetry collections and anthologies with witchcraft as their theme, are booming. Now we can add a Mexican witch to the mix.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda MelchorThe ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blow flies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushed and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.”

The lawless Mexican village of La Matosa is rife with rumours about the reasons for the murder of the so-called Witch – a woman who has too much power. Small town politics, sex, sleeze, aggression and corruption pour across the pages in eight torrential chapters. Unputdownable.

The genius of Hurricane Season lies in the way its author encourages the reader to work with this babble to build not just the narrative of the murder, but also a picture of a poverty-stricken community further devastated by the coming of oil capital and the drugs industry.” – M John Harrison, The Guardian

Each chapter of Hurricane Season is, in part, a self-contained story. Characters are shared, and we often get to know one character as our protagonist after seeing them in the periphery of an earlier chapter. Each time they’re framed differently, and it becomes clear that this is a deceptive book. Everyone is an unreliable narrator. Or is it simply that we cannot help but be biased when it comes to events surrounding ourselves. We shift blame, colour ourselves in brighter or darker shades. We lie, either comfortably or guiltily. That’s the pain that Hurricane Season brings: unwanted honesty.”  – Will Heath, Books and Bao @festivebuoy

Heavy Years: Inside the Head of a Health Worker by Augustus Young | Quartet Books, 2018 | Biographical Fiction buy here

Heavy Years: Inside the Head of a Health Worker At the turn of the 1980s the health service was being broken up into self-managing units called ‘trusts’. ‘A Misnomer,’ Mal Combes said. ‘Nobody trusts anybody.’ Consultants were looking beyond to Harley Street and private work. At least in London and the rich cities. The Ground Forces felt they were in freefall, but carried on as before. I learned from old-style managers that the sick were getting sicker rather than dying, and monopolizing the beds in hospital, while the well weren’t feeling so good and taking up doctors’ time. Expansion of services was called for, but contraction was the policy. Clamours for ‘new money’ were answered with a dull thud. ‘There is none. Economies will have to be made.’ A euphemism for cuts.” – Augustus Young

For decades, campaign groups have mobilized in defense of the NHS, arguing how and why it is so important, horrifyingly clear now in the light of the Corvid 19 pandemic. Consistent pay cuts and underfunding mean that the number of NHS beds (101,255) for general and acute care has been cut by 44% since 1988 whereas Germany has 497,000 hospital beds. (Financial Times)

To get a taste of the chaotic hierarchy of the late twentieth-century NHS and its Kafkaesque inner workings, Augustus Young’s satirical work, Heavy Years, cuts deep. His personal experiences and perspectives, interwoven with philosophical musings, are distilled through thirty years of working as an epidemiologist into a finely crafted literary memoir. A freelance researcher turned “Trojan horse” for the wily and eccentric senior consultant Mal Combes, his view is that public health should be the foundation upon which politics is built, rather than a means of electioneering. However he is increasingly drawn into becoming part of the establishment he originally set out to challenge.

Defeating Cancer by Philip Salem | Quartet Books, 2018 | Non fiction buy here

I want to educate cancer patients about their disease and about the art and science of defeating it. I feel this book is the best gift I can give to any cancer patient because I believe the more the patient knows about his cancer and about its appropriate treatment, the better his chances are for cure.” –  Philip Salem

Philip Adib Salem, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, is a world-renowned cancer physician, researcher and educator, and served on the White House health care advisory committee from 1989-94. In his view, knowledge is not enough, sympathy, empathy and compassion as part of human-to-human care and consideration are essential. An informative, humane and useful read.

Philip Adib Salem recently wrote an article on Covid-19 and the race for a cure in the newspaper An-Nahar in Beirut. It can be read in English HERE

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan | HopeRoad Publishing, 2020 | Fiction buy here

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan Since the mid-20th century, a plethora of novels mapping the experiences of the Indian diaspora in Britain, America, Canada, Australia and the Caribbean have been published. Cauvery Madhavan addresses identity, belonging and home in her insightful and very readable novels of which this is the third, published to coincide with the official launch of the centenary of the Connaught Rangers Munity in India.

Spring 1920 in the small military town of Nandagiri in south-east India. Colonel Aylmer, commander of the Royal Irish Kildare Rangers, is in charge. Tucked out of sight a few streets away is the  heaving bazaar surrounded by squalid streets and brothels. Everyone in Nandagiri knows their position and the role they are expected to play from birth. The one exception being the local Anglo- Indians who belong nowhere  as they are tainted by being of mixed blood.

News of the Black and Tans’ atrocities back in Ireland as the War of Independence intensifies and progresses reaches the troops in India. The Connaught Rangers mutiny in their base in protest of the activities of the Black and Tans, and raise the green flag of Ireland. Politics vie with passion as Private Michael Flaherty pays court to Rose, Mrs Aylmer’s Anglo-Indian maid . . . mutiny brings heroism and heartbreak in equal measure.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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