“When has anyone official in this country ever told the truth? I’ve been alive for nearly eighty years and I’ve never seen it. Not once. There are people missing . . .”
We know about how Fidel and Raúl Castro Ruz overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista during the 1953–59 Cuban Revolution, and that Cuba became a communist thorn in the side of America under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Moscow’s communist ally in the United States’ back yard. But what was it like living day-by-day through the revolution, that moment in time when history altered its course?
The bleakness and violence of life in modern Zimbabwe underpin this powerful coming-of-age tale, as thirteen-year-old Danny comes to understand critical truths about himself, his family and their milieu – and his country. His social observations and attempts to put to rest some of the painful questions surrounding the brutal event which lies at the heart of the novel offer an eye-opening look at life in another culture, and the tensions that lie behind the news headlines.
“I think what happened to us started the day I as out playing on the streets of our neighbourhood and accidentally pissed on the President’s face. I was a thirteen year old kid, skinny, lean-boned, full of shit.”
“As far as Jamal could tell, only two things were wrong: a dirty yellow vapour was streaming from the canister and everyone in the compound was dead. The smoke that made Jamal cough and choke in his hut was partly from the contents of the canister and partly from Auntie Sheema, who had fallen onto the cooking fire.” [page5]
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a terrorist!
Jamal lives in West Africa. His hut is set apart, away from the family compound, because of something that makes him twitch, something that may or may not be in his head, which may be evidence of black magic. “After his mum died and his grandfather left, taking all the palm wine from his uncle’s store, everyone told Jamal that he was unlucky.” The fact that he is “marked by spirits” is what saves the boy when terrorists attack the village, since he is overlooked.Continue reading Review | The Ghosts & Jamal, Bridget Blankley | Book of the Week
“I noticed that the pigeons have completely lost their faith in people. It is impossible to get nearer than five metres to any one of them.” [p. 38]
Because of the war in Syria, an estimated 12.5 million people are displaced, and refugees seeking asylum in Europe invariably develop depression, anxiety and PTSD. The world is facing the highest levels of displacement ever in history, with 65.3 million people forced from their homes by war, internal conflicts, drought or poor economies. The walking traumatised are becoming a major challenge of the twenty-first century, requiring a global plan.
The Bosnian war of 1992-95 resulted in some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Nazi era. More than 100,000 people were killed and, according to a recent report by Al Jazeera, twenty years on many survivors suffering from trauma are not getting the help they need.
“I am solitary and depressed. A man with no one to look after him . . .” The narrator has spent nine months and three days in bed after his wife walked out on their five-year marriage. It is 7 March 2005, it is snowing, and he is coming back into life. He plays the Rolling Stones and watches the world outside his window. Continue reading Review | Seven Terrors, Selvedin Avdić | Book of the Week
“God, like fireflies, only shines in the darkness, wrote Schopenhauer.” – Fireflies (p. 71)
Fireflies by Luis Sagasti is a brief, existential history of the world in the form of eight essays knitted together by subtle connection points. An eclectic array of highbrow and pop cultural personalities are presented in a seemingly random manner but have common threads that carry an underlying message. Philosophy helps us live our lives, is a consolation: Wittgenstein and Habermas make an appearance; as does the celebrated author of haikus, Matsuo Basho.
An original and stimulating work of experimentalism, Fireflies is in the tradition of fellow Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino (who asserted that “the brain begins in the eye”), Roland Barthes and Michel Tournier. What is true and what is false? Are conspiracy theories grounded in any kind of reality? Is there a relationship between death and black holes? Can words express truth, and is perception reality?
“In the wake of Amazon’s Kindle it seemed unlikely that books would ever be banned: instead books are commodified, turned into movies and TV series, rated and recommended in Goodreads, their individual sales histories quantified on Nielsen Bookdata and in the fathomless depths of the Amazon Sales Ranking system. Even the Kindle was named by a branding consultant who suggested the word to Amazon because it means to light a fire. The branding consultant thought that ‘kindle’ was an apt metaphor for reading and intellectual excitement . . .” [p.6 Tinderbox]
The recent Arts Council England report into literary fiction which shows sales, advances and retail prices slumping over the last fifteen years, and the average writer scraping by on £11,000 a year, does not make for seasonal cheer. Clever novels like Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox could possibly offer literary heavyweights hope for the future.
The literary canon as fandom is booming, as the greats of literature are ideologised and hybridised as part of our shifting 21st Century cultural ecology. The symbiosis between cinema, television, computer games, popular music and comics is giving rise to all manner of new creations, blurring the lines between what is real, what is imagined, and interpretations thereof. The blinkered, bookish view that popular culture fans take no interest in literary classics is a false one. Amateur writers are inspired by a whole range of classic texts, from Homer and Shakespeare, to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Fivehave all been reimagined and transformed – unsurprisingly, Harry Pottercomes out on top with over 778670 stories.Continue reading Review | Tinderbox, Megan Dunn | Book of the Week
“Why was he so curious? Perhaps it was partly because of her mystique, her hold over him, and partly because her world was not his. Were they really so different? Maybe they were and maybe he believed that if he could only figure her out, emulate her – her gestures, her attitude – then maybe he could be invincible, extraordinary, like her.”
The novel tells the story of Marcus Murray, “forty-ish with a small paunch and a few grey hairs,” and his fascination with gorgeous free-spirit, Melanie, who had disappeared when he was seventeen. “It’s as if she was a figment of my imagination . . .” Not only is there a dead body virtually on the first page, but also a missing person, presumed dead.
“The city is destroyed, plundered. A very interesting city. Polish culture. An ancient, rich Jewish colony. These frightening bazaars, dwarfs in hooded coats, hoods and side-locks, the aged, a school street, ninety-six synagogues, all half-destroyed, and stories – American soldiers were here, oranges, cloth, thoroughfare, wire, deforestation and wasteland, endless barren land. Nothing to eat, no hope, war, everyone is equally bad, equally foreign, hostile, inhuman, before life was traditionally peaceful” – from Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary in which he describes his experiences with the Cossack cavalry during the Polish-Soviet war.
To actually feel what it was like to be caught up in the most momentous event of the 20th century, and to walk in the shoes of those who either stayed and wrote under the increasingly tricky conditions of censorship, or fled to become émigrés pining for a lost world, or visited from abroad wanting to see revolution in action . . . read Pete Ayrton’s anthology Revolution!Writing from Russia 1917. Of all the books marking this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution, this is the one to go for.Continue reading Review | Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, Pete Ayrton (ed.) | Book of the Week
In the popular imagination, Africa is one great big game reserve where man can hunt to his heart’s content, relishing the thrill of the dangerous chase. Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway (that hackneyed darling of writing course instructors), recounted testosterone-fuelled tales of derring-do as they pursued their prey across the vast “uncivilized” plains of Africa. Roosevelt returned to the US with thousands of specimens – lions, elephants, rhinoceros – duly donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Disney’s film The Lion King is the second-highest-grossing Disney film of all time. It depicts all kinds of animals frolicking across great, untamed African landscapes devoid of human beings – whereas the reality is more likely to be that Africa becomes a great landscape empty of animals.
Green Lion is a deftly-executed novel about man and beast and extinction; about bereavement, animal magic and the human desire for connection. It opens with the mauling of volunteer zoo keeper, Mark Carolissen, who ends up in hospital in a coma. He was looking after a rare black-maned Cape Lion, Dmitri, kept in kept in captivity for breeding with lioness, Sekhmet. Visitors gawp in thrilling terror at the kings of the animal world, safe behind glass.Continue reading Review | Green Lion, Henrietta Rose-Innes | Book of the Week
“What was the grand plan? Build a clifftop church and then hurry away back to London when it was finished? Or was he to remain and become a spiritual guide of some kind? He didn’t know . . .”
Midlife crisis, existentialist angst, spiritual awakening, burnout, soul loss . . . the list of labels is a long one, but whatever the inner crisis, transformation or degeneration are among the possible outcomes.
Proctor McCullough and his business partner Jim are consultants on catastrophe – “futurology at its most pessimistic“. They run an “independent agency that analysed behaviour during terrible events and helped businesses plan better resolution strategies . . . Their small client base included corporations, broadcasters, and now the government.” He and his partner Holly, a solicitor for asylum seekers, have been together for 13 years and have six year old twins, Pearl and Walter. They live in a semi-detached Victorian house in Wandsworth. Continue reading Review | As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths | Book of the Week