Here are our latest top 10 reads from a selection of independent publishers every book lover should know. A good read underpinned by an open mind can change your lifeview irrevocably: Palestine in Black and White by Mohammad Sabaaneh is one such book.
The Past is a Foreign Country
Liv by Roger Pulvers (Balestier Press)
A fifty-five year old Norwegian woman who works as a volunteer for refugees is heading home on a suburban train in Sydney, Australia, in 1975. Liv Grimstad is discomfited by the man sitting opposite her. He is elderly with liver spots on his hands yet he is horribly familiar.
“As if to stir those dormant scraps of ash and rekindle them, another memory returned to me, despite the force of will of thirty years to keep that ash cold. It came in the form not of a stench or a spark or a flame but of a glare in the man’s cornflower-blue eyes, those terrifying, vengeful, malicious, piercing eyes that were saying to me softly but insistently, “Liv, you will never escape me!”
Liv is convinced it is Donald Meissner, the man who has haunted her memory since they both worked at the German Embassy in Tokyo during the war. He was the beast who tormented and persecuted people, sending them into the hands of the Japanese Military Police. She sets out to uncover this man who calls himself Donald Miles. He escaped retribution somehow after war ended. Her journey involves his wife, daughter and granddaughter. With flashbacks to wartime Tokyo that revisit the love affair between Liv and her German fiancé Martin (one of Meissner’s victims), this unsettling novel probes the theme of how to deal with evil without becoming infected by it. Our fates are bound together regardless of “good” and “bad”.
The launch will be held this Monday 16 Feb, 6pm – 7pm, at the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP.
American-born author, Roger Pulvers, will discuss Liv, and his previous novel, Hoshizuna Monogatari (Star Sand), released as a film, directed by him, last year. He worked as assistant to director Nagisa Oshima on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and befriended David Bowie which inspired him to become the award-winning playwright, film director and prolific author he is today.
Naughty Valentine, yes please, be mine!
Restoration Bawdy ed. John Adlard (Carcanet Press)
Sensual pleasure, gentle, violent or comic: take your pick. Restoration Bawdy, an anthology of seventeenth-century erotic writing, brings vividly to life a ‘masquerading age’. A number of the pieces have only previously been available in research libraries. The book draws on high and low culture, and includes courtly poems and works by Rochester, Sedley and Etheridge, as well as John Aubrey, Aphra Behn and Philip Ayres, alongside broadside ballads, doggerel from almanacs and songs from plays. Restoration Bawdy is a feast of language not just of the flesh.
From Penkethman’s jests, 1721
“My Master with needle and thimble
Must take his stitches so nimble,
Else he’ll be made poor
By his wife, that young whore,
For she longs to play with a wimble.
Yet in troth I cannot her blame
For my master is both old and lame;
Was I in her place . . .”
To find out what happens next, best buy the book!
The Travels of Ibn Fudayl by George R.Sole (Darf Publishers)
“It is a great irony that on 19 April 2006, the only extant manuscript of this book should have been discovered quite by chance by a filing clerk at the Asad library, Damascus. The Travels of Ibn Fudayl, as it has become known, expresses vividly the magnificence of a world now gone. This translation gives a remarkable picture of Andalusia that will interest both the curious reader as well as the specialist.”
Abuses of power, blustering tyrants, flawed ideologies and societies gone mad are nothing new. The satirist pokes fun at the ills and hypocrisies of the time with his or her pen while their palliative humour soothes frustrated and irritated citizen-readers. The comedic and the tragic are not so far apart. The Travels of Ibn Fudayl is an excellent example of why satire is such a subtle yet stimulating art form, requiring wit and knowledge on the part of the reader in order to fully savour the references, twists and punchlines.
The Travels of Ibn Fudayl is a clever, concise and erudite tale written in the manner of an academic who has translated a medieval manuscript. Complete with foreword, introduction, bibliography, copious footnotes and annotated glossary (my favourite section), it pokes fun at the self-important pretentions of academia, whilst chronicling Ibn Fudayl’s experiences in Al-Andalus – notably how his search for wisdom leads to a meeting with the philosopher Al-Homsi, the world’s most ignorant man. Their friendship and love for worthless knowledge enables Ibn Fudayl to reach the upper echelons of Andalusian society.
“Before settling in Syria, Ibn Fudayl had visited India, Persia and the Levant. As for his life, he has been mentioned by other scholars of the time in passing. Some labelled him as a zindiq, a freethinker, others considered him as part of a Sufi order mixing the Neo-platonic thought of Plotinus with the esoteric mysticism of the Shi’ites. There are also lines of poetry that have been attributed to him but they cannot be verified with enough certainly. For example:
I am the existent yet the non-existent,
I am the ocean that fits in a drinker’s cup.
Questions that you hold to be self-evident,
With my being I knock and open up.”
Know Your Place ed. Nathan Connolly (Dead Ink Books)
“Treats, when I was growing up, were true to the word. It’s only now, as an adult with my own disposable income, I can overindulge in them, and render what was once rare and special, routine. A hole in the wall pizza place in a neighbouring town was a particular joy metered out on uneven paydays . . . tea from a polystyrene cup meant being on holiday, buying one from the counter of a sizzling burger van, usually parked on a tarmac car park near a sodden beach, whilst en route to a caravan to listen to the same rain patter on the roof.” From The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality by Laura Waddell
Know Your Place is a collection of 24 essays about the working class, written by the working class. Inspired by a tweet by editor of The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla, it was then crowd-sourced. Examining representation, literature, sexuality, gender, art, employment, poverty, childhood, culture and politics, Know Your Place is a sweeping first-hand account of what it means to come from the bottom of Britain’s archaic, entrenched class structure. The book offers unique views on working-class life in Britain today.
Writers in the 1950s such as Alan Sillitoe, Bill Hopkins and Colin Wilson who came from working class backgrounds were labelled by the press and the Establishment as being “Angry Young Men” which they rejected time and again, but it stuck. A motley crew, their stock in trade was sarcasm and irony rather than red-faced anger and revolution. Then came playwrights like Harold Pinter, Steven Berkoff, Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett . . . writers Melvyn Bragg, Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Forster . . . Richard Allen (a pseudonym used by James Moffat) . . . James Kelman, Alan Warner, John King, Irvine Welsh.
To drop your accent, ingest a dictionary and talk in a BBC voice was once an essential prerequisite for advancement. (Thirty years ago when I started my first job in in publishing, my first two bosses were from London’s East End and Yorkshire, but their accents had been eradicated.)
Libraries are closing, books are being superseded by the internet and TV box sets, and isolationist Brexit is described by the Media as being the response of the discontented working class, although subsequent analysis has shown that the profile of Brexit voters is heterogeneous, and includes voters with high education and middle-class jobs.
Alan Warner, “I was fascinated by literature – because it was otherworldly. It wasn’t something made in and of my community.” Not since the late 1990s and Sarah Champion’s showcase anthology Disco Biscuits has there been anything as vital and imperative as Know Your Place.
Know Your Place is a boundary-pushing book not only because it gives genuine insight into the lives of what is probably the largest single group in society, but a diverse and trailblazing group of strong women writers speak out: Abondance Matanda, Catherine O’Flynn, Gena-mour Barrett, Rebecca Winson, Sam Mills, Sylvia Arthur, Kate Fox, Yvonne Singh, Laura Waddell, Kit De Waal, Cath Bore, Sian Norris, Rym Kecha, Durre Shahwar, Kath McKay.
Kit de Waal is now following up with another anthology of working class writers and has hooked up with Unbound and various regional writing development organisations, including New Writing North and Writing West Midlands. You can make a pledge here.
A Good Read for Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale
The Prepper Room by Karen Duve trs. Mike Mitchell (Dedalus Books)
“In those days there were toads there, kingfishers and otters, and even today you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of a sparrow or a rabbit. Wellingstedt has undergone great changes, of course. The conifers planted in the gardens in the sixties have grown so tall that now the gardens look like Böcklin’s Isles of the Dead. Moreover the place is gradually but inevitably being gentrified. Estate agents are prowling up and down outside the last little houses where the remaining indigenous population is quietly muddling along. And whenever one of those houses is free, it’s torn down and replaced with a monstrosity . . .”
The year is 2031 and all the dire predictions of environmentalists are coming true: extreme weather bringing storms, floods and intense heat; and the genetically modified ‘killer rape’ is rampant everywhere. A rejuvenation pill has been developed but no one is going to enjoy eternal youth for long: the experts forecast that the world’s ecosystems will collapse in five years’ time.
Women have taken over power to try and save the world from the mess men have created. But there is opposition in the form of the MASCULO movement that is aiming to reassert male power by violent means if necessary. At the same time apocalyptic sects are proliferating.
Sebastian, the central protagonist, appears to be one of the good guys, a Greenpeace activist in his youth, he now has an important position in the Democracy Centre. But in his private life he is proud and egotistical, attempting to restore his male pride: for the last two years he has kept his wife chained up in a windowless cellar. But his attempts to do away with her so he can live with his new love, lead to disaster.
Karen Duve is one of Germany’s leading contemporary writers and the winner of eight literary prizes. A novel about feminism, masculinity and the battle between the sexes for domination, The Prepper Room is hugely entertaining and full of grotesque humour and highly-charged eroticism. It is the perfect read in this centenary year celebrating women getting the vote in 1918.
A Good Read for fans of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn
The Rehearsals by Vladimir Sharov trs. Oliver Ready (Dedalus Books)
“Heaven was the time of man’s childhood. Playing, he gave names to the animals and the fish, the birds and the trees, to everything that the Lord filled His world with and that would live with mankind. Heaven was where man came to know good and evil, and came to know them too soon, while he was still a child and his soul was still raw. His first act of evil was to break the Lord’s interdiction, then run and hide; this was merely the sin of a foolish child and yet, having once appeared in the world, evil began to beget evil, it multiplied and grew, and man, whose soul was ill-trained to distinguish good from evil, merely helped it along in his ignorance. We fight evil and think that since it is against us and since we are fighting it we must be good, but that’s not true. The other man also thinks that he is good and that by fighting us he is fighting evil, and in this fight two evils come together and a new one comes into being. We do not understand, or we forget, that good is something entirely different, that good is what everyone will see, from wherever they happen to be looking.”
New Jerusalem Monastery, seventeenth-century Moscow. Patriarch Nikon has instructed an itinerant French dramatist to stage the New Testament and hasten the Second Coming. But it will be a strange form of theatre. The actors are untrained, illiterate Russian peasants, and nobody is allowed to play Christ. They are persecuted, arrested, displaced, and ultimately replaced by their own children. Yet the rehearsals continue . . . A remarkable reflection on art, history, religion and national identity, The Rehearsals is a major new work of fiction by Vladimir Sharov. He won the Russian Booker Prize in 2014.
Paul Lequesne writes in Le Monde newspaper, “Sharov has assimilated, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, the artistic and philosophical legacy of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of Russian literature. Like Dostoevsky, he is excessive not in order to deny, misrepresent, or flee reality but, rather, to capture it more accurately.”
A Journey into the Australian Outback
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Gallic Books)
A debut historical novel exploring the Australian pioneer experience, Salt Creek is just out in paperback and is a Times Book of the Year.
1855. Failed entrepreneur and idealist, Stanton Finch, moves his family from Adelaide to the remote Coorong area of Southern Australia, in pursuit of his dream to become a farmer and to restore their fortunes. Housed in a driftwood cabin, they try to make the best of their situation. The children roam the beautiful landscape of Salt Creek and make cheese; visitors are rare but warmly welcomed; a local aboriginal boy, Tull, almost becomes part of the family. But the environment is harsh and hardships abound. There are tensions with the Ngarrindjeri people along the lower Murray River, and disaster lurks.
“Life is so much absence and emptiness and vivid stretches and disconnected fragments when everything happens; things that light up in memory while all around is darkness. Some of the people I have known are no more than fragments themselves, because I knew only a part of them or because their lives were short . . .”
Fragile Mrs Finch struggles to cope, so Hester, their perceptive eldest daughter, willingly takes on more responsibility. As Hester’s sense of duty grows, so does a yearning to escape Salt Creek and make a new life of her own.
Lucy Treloar said of her motivation for writing the book, “The Coorong, where Salt Creek is set, has always had an almost mythical quality for my family. Several times a year, when I was a child, my family would make the pilgrimage from Melbourne to the family beach house in South Australia five hundred miles away, each time passing the Coorong’s inland margins – a landscape of rolling saltbush and shimmering sky. My mother would tell almost fantastical stories of one of our ancestors and his large family who moved to these wilds in an attempt to restore the family fortunes . . . I was desperate to explore that desolate world and terrified that someone else would have the idea first. But part of my motivation was also that I could feel the fragility of the family stories and wanted to record them in some way so they wouldn’t be lost forever.”
Art as Resistance
Palestine in Black and White by Mohammad Sabaaneh (Saqi Books)
This year Saqi Books are celebrating thirty-five years as an independent publisher of outstanding books on the Middle East and North Africa. Publisher, Lynn Gaspard, writes: “Today, we believe that our mission of promoting world culture and literary excellence is more important than ever, particularly in championing the voices of mis- or under-represented communities. With that in mind, this year, the seventieth since the Nakba, or catastrophe, which saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their land, we are proud to bring you four bold new works about Palestine, each in their own way a testament to the resilience, creativity and humanity of its people.”
Caricaturist and artist, Mohammad Sabaaneh has gained worldwide renown for his black-and-white sketches which powerfully portray life under Zionist occupation. This first collection brings together one hundred of Sabaaneh’s most striking works, including cartoons that portray the experience of Palestinian prisoners, drawn while Sabaaneh himself was detained in an Israeli prison. The drawings do not flinch from revealing the reality that confronts Palestinians, from Israel’s injustices in the West Bank to their military operations on Gaza.
Men and Gods
Churchill and Chartwell: The Untold Story of Churchill’s Houses and Gardens by Professor Stefan Buczacki (Unicorn Publishing Group)
The Unicorn Publishing Group specialises in high quality cultural history and art books, and publishes a number of illustrated, scholarly works about Winston Churchill and his world. Churchill and Chartwell is a biography of Britain’s revered war leader through the houses he lived in and the gardens he made, culminating with the full story of his purchase, alteration and creation of Chartwell, Kent, where he lived for more than 40 years before and after the war, now owned and run by The National Trust.
Churchill was born amidst the splendours of Blenheim Palace, but he owned or rented many houses, both grand and relatively modest, over the course of his long and restless life, including country retreats, modern town apartments and, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Admiralty House. But it was his house at Chartwell that would be for ever associated with his name.
The current deification of Winston Churchill is unfortunate and smacks of political desperation. To make gods of men is to deny their fallibility and authenticity. He was from the highly-educated, highly articulate élite, on both sides of the Atlantic, and was steeped in Victorian values. Winston Churchill may have been an eloquent and courageous leader, but he was a complex and controversial man.
Donald Trump’s misty-eyed adoration of Winston Churchill and his desire to visit the Cabinet War Rooms when he comes to the UK later on this year is the irony of ironies. That the defender of tyranny admires the defeater of tyranny says much about the world of delusions and lies in which we now live.
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