Our eclectic November top ten reads rejoice in strong women and have a radical, cosmopolitan flavour. We continue our celebration of 15 years of the Childrens’ Bookshow, highlighting two more books featured in this year’s tour. Happy reading! Georgia @bookblast
Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi (Pushkin Press) buy here
Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, Anne Marie Jackson
“A semi-literate peasant and a counsellor to the Tsar, a hardened sinner and a man of prayer, a shape-shifter with the name of God on his lips. They called him cunning. Was there really nothing to him but cunning? I shall tell you about my two brief encounters with him . . .” Teffi’s portrait of Rasputin, and her description of his unwanted advances, is a disturbing reminder of how sex-pests using positions of power to get their dirty way are not a new phenomenon. All of the women saying #MeToo on Twitter are standing on the shoulders of the women who came before them.
Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Lokhvitskaya – who wrote under the pseudonym Teffi – was born in 1872 into a family prominent in Saint Petersburg society. An essayist, poet and playwright, she became so popular that there were Teffi sweets and a Teffi perfume. She supported socialism and the 1905 revolution, and worked for the first Bolshevik paper, New Life, which was later shut down by the Leninist authorities. She left Russia in 1919 and settled in France, where she died in 1952. Her engaging, witty and empathic writing belies a bleak undertow of loss and nostalgia for lost worlds as she writes about life before the revolution, fellow writers, emigration, and life in Paris.
Oriana Fallaci by Cristina de Stefano (Other Press) buy here
Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss
“I’ve always been political in my writing, actions and life. I grew up in a political family. I was educated in politics . . . The risk of Fascism is my fixation,” wrote Oriana Fallaci.
Growing up during World War Two, Fallaci witnessed bombings in Florence, a priest being shot by the Fascists, and she fought alongside her father with the Partisans. As an entertainment journalist writing about American film stars in the series Hollywood Through the Keyhole, she was unfazed and fearless. As a war reporter she covered Vietnam, Latin America, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Her interviews with Kissinger, Gaddafi, Selassie, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi were controversial and lengthy – establishing the “La Fallaci” style of interview.
Her personal life was torrid and tumultuous. She authored several bestselling books. Her novel Letter to a Child Never Born – written as a mother’s monologue at her unborn child – sold almost half a million copies in the 6 months after it was published in 1975. At her death she was facing charges of vilifying Islam under Italian law following the publication of The Strength of Reason.
The most famous of all women war correspondents is Martha Gellhorn, thanks to being a wife of Ernest Hemingway – relegating Virginia Cowles and Clare Hollingworth to the oubliette of history. Cristina de Stefano’s biography Oriana Fallaci had me gripped. What a trailblazer! What a life!
The Recent Past by James Ravilious, edited by James Hatt (Wilmington Square/Bitter Lemon Press) buy here
A new selection of images by one of Britain’s most celebrated documentary photographers. James was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious, and spent his working life photographing rural life in and around Devon, where he lived with his wife from 1972 onwards.
He was hired by the Beaford Centre to start a photographic archive recording the landscape and people of the area. This part of Devon clung to its traditional life for longer than many other parts of Britain, and although his photographs were taken as recently as the 1970s or 1980s, they capture a way of life that is vanishing, or has vanished.
“I first came across James Ravilious’s work in a Cotswold art store, where I bought a card of Homeland Bridge on the River Taw. I thought it was one of the most beautiful British landscape photographs I had ever seen . . . Ravilious is quite simply one of the greats of British Twentieth Century photography . . . His achievements amount to great art, both in landscape and his studies of people. He is a master of composition; he has an original eye for form; and his appreciation and exploitation of light matches that of Vermeer,” Henry Porter
Forgotten Kingdom: Nine Years in Yunnan 1939-48 by Peter Goullhart (Eland) buy here
“I developed early an interest in the Orient, particularly in China, Mongolia, Turkistan and Tibet. It must have been in my blood and it undoubtedly came from my mother’s side. Her father and grandfather were great and famous merchants during the past century and their caravans went to Kobdo and Kiahta and even as far as Hankow to pick up China teas and silks.”
Goullart was born into a well-educated family in Russia in the beginning of the last century, and fled the Bolshevik Revolution to eventually settle in Shanghai in 1924.
As a member of an Industrial Co-operative, he was posted to Likiang, a remote provincial town “outside China, the ‘Outer Darkness’, a no-man’s land lost in the sea of barbarous tribes who did not even speak Chinese.” As a Government official handing out loans, he got to know local merchants, traders, artisans, inn-keepers, highland tribes, and the king who was generally viewed as a “nincompoop”. He describes local feasts and festivals, cultural life and psychic phenomena, markets and wine-shops, marriages and ceremonial suicides,(yuwoo), the Tibetan community and lamaseries, and the dramatic, wild landscape. Society was complex, many-layered and tolerant. Everyone lived in close contact with the spirit world. “The Chinese believe simultaneously and sincerely in Buddhism, Taoism, Ancestral Worship (Confucianism), Animism and willingly accept Christianity if need be . . .”
A blend of cultural study, social history, entertaining anecdote, and personal quest, Forgotten Kingdom is an unusual escapist and vivid read, perfect for the armchair traveller.
Fantastic Literary Scholarship (fantasticheskoe literaturovedenie)
Strolls With Pushkin by Andrei Sinyavsky (Columbia University Press) buy here
Translated by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Slava I. Yastremski
A Voice From the Chorus, based on Andrei Sinyavsky’s letters to his wife during his imprisonment, was published in 1994 in the Quartet Encounters series. I had been sent by Pickles to see Sinyavsky and his wife in Fontenay-aux-Roses in order to persuade them to let us have the rights. So when I recently spotted Strolls with Pushkin, I had to have it!
Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-97) was a well-respected writer and critic. His introduction to a 1965 collection of Pasternak’s poems – whom he admired as “a great patriot and a great poet” – surprisingly, was passed by the censors. He was also the writer of bitingly satirical underground novels and stories smuggled out of Russia for publication in the West, written under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. Arrested by the KGB in 1965, Sinyavsky endured seven years of forced labour. He emigrated to Paris in 1973 with his wife and son.
Strolls with Pushkin – one of the most controversial books published during the glasnost period – is wonderfully readable, even if you are not steeped in Pushkinian erudition. In a brilliant display of intellectual and linguistic gymnastics, Sinyavsky takes on the cult of personality enveloping the man who represents the Russian soul: “Pushkin was the first civilian to attract attention to himself in Russian literature. A civilian in the fullest sense of the word, not a diplomat, not a secretary, a nobody. A goldbricker. A deadbeat. But he made more noise than any military man. He was the first poet who had a biography instead of a service record . . .”
The Middle East: A Gender Battleground
Farewell Damascus by Ghada Samman (Darf Publishers) buy here
“As she thought back on all the humiliation she’d endured in her marriage, she didn’t feel as though she’d just taken an innocent life. In fact, she felt she’d come to its rescue. What she’d killed was the needless degradation this little boy or girl would have been subjected to now that a one-time sweetheart had turned into an executioner.”
Damascus in the early 1960s is gripped by corruption and political oppression following the Baathist power-grab. Political and religious attitudes and practices demean women and promote male-dominated culture.
Zain Khayyal is well-educated and ambitious, but her husband expects her to stay home, cook good food, and look pretty like a doll. Her announcement that she wants a divorce receives a mixed reception. “The neighbourhood ladies lined the surrounding rooftops like TV antennas.”
Fadila is in love with poet and teacher Najm, but is to be married off to a rich man from a decent family who rapes her when she visits to pay her respects to his mother. Her anguished pleas to her family to cancel the wedding are quashed. “She would never get any support from her father for the simple reason that she was a female. When a cat had given birth to a litter of kittens once, he’d thrown the females against the Damascus wall and killed them, but left the males alone.”
The struggle to be an independent woman living a fulfilled life in a world that doesn’t really care what happens to her is rendered with sharp-eyed clarity and unnerving charm in this novel by a leading Syrian author who has worked as a translator, broadcaster and translator.
Poetry in the Kitchen
The Magic of What’s There by David Morley (Carcanet) buy here
David Morley, winner of the Ted Hughes Award, casts off the worlds of myth and magical fable to focus on the fiercely personal. ‘Love teaches you how to mind / And how to mend’, he writes in After a Song by Gustav Mahler. In this bold new collection, Morley uses his eye for precise detail and his linguistic invention to explore childhood suffering and, in counterbalance, the joys of love, friendship and parenthood. His poems acknowledge our capacity for cruelty, but also for love, tenderness and mercy.
Leamington Bird Reserve Hide
The bird reserve is reedy and neglected
with drab posters of species in the hide.
At least, they seem like birds. With graffiti,
you wouldn’t want your children to look closely.
Stubbed cigarettes scar the shelf where you place
your elbows as you lift binoculars . . .
The Fragrant Pantry: Floral Scented Jams, Jellies and Liqueurs by Frances Bissell (Serif Books, Or Books) buy here
Frances Bissell is one of Britain’s leading food writers. Her writing career began when she won a competition. Jane Grigson – one of the judges – encouraged her to embark on a career in food writing. Bissell has been guest chef to some of the world’s best hotels and embassies. The Fragrant Pantry: Floral Scented Jams, Jellies and Liqueurs is the third in a trilogy of books on floral cooking which no good kitchen can be without. The other titles are The Scented Kitchen: Cooking with Flowers and The Floral Baker: Cakes, Pastries and Breads.
“There is no doubt that there is now more interest in exploring new flavours and new methods of cooking. Only a few years ago, one had to seek out specialist suppliers to obtain floral essences and edible flowers. Now it is possible to buy excellent rose and other flower waters, as well as floral sugars, edible dried flowers and crystallised flowers from many supermarkets. And, of course, the internet is invaluable for searching for these ingredients . . . I see The Fragrant Pantry, and the trilogy as a whole, as a continuation of a strong English tradition, at its richest, perhaps, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but also part of English cookery in the fifteenth and sixteenth century,” says Frances Bissell.
Her recipes range from good things in bottles (elderflower, cucumber and lemon gin), to strawberry–and-rose-petal jam, developed for afternoon tea during her first guest chef promotion at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and it is sold in the Mandarin Oriental Cake Shop.
The Magic of Storytelling for Kids
Secret Tales from Wales by Daniel Morden, illustrated by Brett Breckon (Gomer Press) buy here
“When I was young, children could walk to school by themselves. Every day as I walked I would make up a story, about myself, or Spiderman, or the Viking God Thor, or some strange character I had invented. When I reached school, if I hadn’t finished the story I would walk around the playground, muttering it under my breath. I had to know how the story ended, even though I was making it up,” Daniel Morden.
Morden’s performance at Liverpool Philharmonic as one of this year’s authors touring with the Children’s Bookshow had me spellbound, along with 1000 kids from 13 local schools. He particularly loves “fairy tales, folk tales, myths, legends from long, long, long, long ago.” He revelled in back-to-front wordplay and riddles, told jokes with a poker face, and “stories the ears have never seen and ears have never heard.” His words spun surreal images in the air as he described “a fish on a bike, an apple tree festooned with bananas.”
His latest book, Secret Tales from Wales, for 9 to 11 year olds, is a weird and wonderful feast of magic and trickery, uniting wizards and masons, blacksmiths and beggars, kings and robbers, clever young women and mice. Morden the master storyteller revisits the tale of Cinderella which becomes The Cinder Girl and her Cruel Sister. A bizarre story called The Day it Rained Potatoes involves a thieving dog and some sausages, a cellar full of glue and gold coins . . . Secret Tales from Wales is the perfect stocking present!
Scritch Scratch Scraww Plop by Kitty Crowther (Enchanted Lion Books) buy here
The South Ken Kids Festival was celebrating its 20th birthday this year. In collaboration with The Childrens’ Bookshow – celebrating its 15th birthday this year – the Belgian writer and illustrator, Kitty Crowther, was brought over especially for the festival. She grew up in Brussels listening to Wind in the Willows read by her English father and grandfather (her mother was Swedish). She has written and illustrated 15 of her own books including the popular Poka and Mia series (Tate Publishing) and has illustrated numerous other books. In 2010 she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
Crowther’s performance at the IFRU’s Ciné Lumière involved live line drawing on stage. Her interview in pictures featured her alter ego, Jume, (pronounced Chumi). The alternate reading in French and English with Sarah Ardizzone was of her latest book for 4 to 8 year olds, Scritch Scratch Scraww Plop!, which takes Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Jeremy Fisher as its inspirational starting point. Little Jerome goes to bed after Dad’s read him a story and Mum’s kissed him goodnight, but cannot go to sleep as he is terrified by noises under his bed . . . I was as mesmerized as the two hundred children from three London schools in the audience when she then drew – projected live on to a screen behind her – a parrot, a lion, a penguin, and a dinosaur enjoying an ever so British cup of tea!
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