Our Top 5 Reads monthly round up features five eclectic reads from France, Italy, New York and the Indian Ocean.
Little by Edward Carey (Gallic/Aardvark Bureau)
“In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte, many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.”
After the death of her parents, the odd little seven-year-old is apprenticed to Doctor Curtius, an emaciated recluse who fashions body parts from wax for medical research. He teaches the clever little Anne Marie Grosholz his trade. They flee to Paris to avoid their creditors, and find lodgings with a tailor’s widow and her son Edmond. Marie is banished to the kitchen by Edmond’s jealous mother so she has no choice but to find allies outside the widow’s household. An abandoned monkey house is converted into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors King Louis XVI’s sister Elizabeth and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is boiling up into revolutionary fervour and her royal connections will become problematic.
The ambitious orphan is both worldly and full of heart: a female Candide. Befriended by royalty and radicals alike, she transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud.
My Name is Adam: Children of the Ghetto Vol. 1 by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (MacLehose Press)
“Once, Sarang Lee told me Adam didn’t like me and had said he had doubts about this teacher of hers. He went further, in fact. She said she didn’t want to tell me (though she did) that he had doubts about my intentions towards her and that when she’d defended me and said I’d never made even the slightest allusion to the possibility of starting an affair, the guy got angry and said he wasn’t; talking about that sort of thing, he meant something more important, and asked her if she’d read my novel Gate of the Sun, saying writers couldn’t be trusted and one day she might come across herself as a heroine in one of my novels. Her reaction amazed me: she asked coyly if she’d make a good heroine for a novel.”
Khoury is introduced by one of his students, Sarang Lee, to an elderly man of multiple identities, a Palestinian-Israeli: Adam Dannoun. He works in a New York café specialising in middle-eastern food. After Dannoun dies in a fire – a consequence of smoking in bed – the writer decides to publish the notebooks found in the charred ruins of the room in order to tell the old man’s story. The notebooks contain Adam’s failed attempt at a novel and the story of his own life. It turns out he was in Palestine in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War: witness the massacre, the exodus from Lydda (his birthplace) and Ramle, the massacre, and the corralling of those citizens who did not flee into what the Israeli soldiers and their Palestinian captives came to refer to as the Ghetto.
Book Review in Haaretz HERE
Elias Khoury is the author of thirteen novels, four volumes of literary criticism and three plays and is Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is considered by many to be the finest living Arabic novelist.
Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan (MacLehose Press)
“I used to think that on the day when I discovered the truth about my birth, something in my head would click into place. I’d shake, my mind would start racing, and all my ideas would come together, like a great jigsaw finally finished, and that suddenly I’d become an ace in my own right. And from that day on nobody would get the better of me. I’d know precisely who was, what I was worth and what I was capable of.
When I learned the truth I felt I was less than nothing, a piece of shit, a kid that terrified its own mother when he emerged from her, a kid she handed over to the first person who came along, what do you call that? I was furious with Marie, I felt she was hiding something from me and made her repeat it over and over and over again.
It was May 3, it was raining, your mother arrived in a kwassa-kwassa on the beach at Bandrakouni. That’d be how she’d start telling it each evening and I was on the lookout for a mistake, sometimes she said kwassa-kwassa, sometimes just kwassa and that would make me angry, I don’t know why. She refused to take me to the beach, which is at the southern end of Grande-Terre and I couldn’t understand her refusal. Maybe I accused her of being a liar, or a child thief. Maybe.”
The French island of Mayotte, also known as Mahoré, lies among the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean. The main town, Mamoudzou, is on the main island, Grande-Terre, which is linked by a ferry to the lesser island, Petite-Terre, where the town of Dzaoudzi is situated.
Marie adopts an abandoned baby found on the beach and names him Moïse, raising him as a French boy. As he grows up, Moïse struggles with his status as an “outsider” and to understand why he was abandoned. When Marie dies suddenly, he is left alone, plunged into uncertainty and turmoil. He ends up in the largest and most infamous slum on Mayotte, known as “Gaza”, where feral, lawless children roam. The boy teams up with Bruce, a ruthless gang leader who takes him into the hell of the streets, “You’re the only one does any talking, and you talk well, yeah, that you do, coming out with those nice clean, tidy, French words, nice white words. Well, look at you now. What good did all that do, if you ended up here?”
Narrated by five different characters, Tropic of Violence shines a strong ray of light on the problems of violence, immigration, identity, deprivation and isolation on this island that became a French département in 2011. It is a remarkable and unusual novel that draws on the author’s own observations from her time on Mayotte.
Soul of the Border by Matteo Righetto trs. Howard Curtis (Pushkin Press)
“There are villages that smell of misfortune. You just have to breathe in their air to recognize them, air that is murky and thin and defeated, like all things that have failed.
Nevada was one such village, with its handful of men and women living in hovels that clung to the steep slopes on the right-hand side of the river, hovels half-hidden by ragged woods and scattered here and there among the masiere: those little terraces, reclaimed from the mountainside, that descend towards Enego to the east of the Asiage Plateau, and then lunge into the Brenta and Suanga Valleys.”
The de Boer family are tobacco growers, working on terraces in the Veneto region of northern Italy at the end of the 19th century. Life is hard, and the father, Augusto, occasionally supplements their income by smuggling tobacco across the border into Austria. Sometimes he takes his daughter Jole with him, and father and daughter journey together on the perilous route over the mountains.
When Augusto mysteriously fails to return from one of these trips, Jole is driven to provide for her family and inherits her father’s smuggling route. Accompanied only by her horse, Sansom, she must retrace the dangerous journey through the spectacular landscape, hoping for a good trade in exchange for her tobacco, but also to discover the truth behind her father’s mysterious disappearance.
The Adventures of Catvinkle by Elliot Perlman, illustrated by Laura Stitzel (Pushkin Press)
“Catvinkle had her own room in Mr Sabatini’s house, though she kindly allowed him to share it and use it as a study. She loved this room. It was slightly sunken below the ground, so that when Catvinkle sat in the space in front of the window she could see feet and legs walking past her on Herring Street outside. She found people’s shoes, socks and legs endlessly fascinating . . .”
Catvinkle is a sleek and satisfied housecat who wears a large red bow at the end of her tail. Her world is turned upside down by Ula, a damp and scruffy abandoned dalmatian. Together they make an unlikely pair, but soon become fast friends, despite their differences. It seems that cat and dog can be friends. However, trouble looms on the horizon in the shape of Catvinkle’s nemesis, Twinkiepaws, and an upcoming baby-shoe dancing competition . . .
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