Review | The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha | Book of the Week

Rakha’s tale of a man’s “transformation during twenty-one days from a Europeanized intellectual to a semi-madman who believed he could perform magic deeds to resurrect the Islamic caliphate” is a very readable feast — taking in love, friendship, work and (in)sanity . . . identity, faith and the nationalist movement . . . Ottoman Turkey, neoliberalism, politics . . . digital photography, the internet and Cairo café life . . . Amgad Salah’s conversion from a lost hobo into an unarmed terrorist . . . laced with a smattering of zombies, camels, masturbation and ecstasy (chemical or otherwise). The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars is one helluva read.

Part confessional, part letter to a friend, part philosophical treatise and a journey of self-discovery: Mustafa Çorbaci’s stream of consciousness carries the reader along in a weird and wonderful coherent swirl of words that conveys his thoughts, impressions and emotions as his world is turned upside down. “My marriage had been a Greek tragedy, which begins and ends within twenty-four hours. Blink and it’s over.” A journalist for over a decade, “in the last seven years he hadn’t budged from in front of the screen.” He eventually leaves his job and travels, ending up in Beirut. Continue reading Review | The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha | Book of the Week

Spotlight | The Fifties Woman #OnWilderShores @AuthorsClub lunch @MsRachelCooke

The stereotypical view of the fifties woman is reflected in vintage postcards on sale at stalls in Portobello Market, featuring colourful ads for hoovers, OMO, ‘Empire’ baby pants, or Kenwood chef food processors alongside an immaculately dressed housewife with perfect hair and varnished nails beaming a pillarbox-red lipsticked smile as she does the chores.

Rachel Cooke’s book, Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, flies in the face of the clichéd view of the fifties housewife stuck at home ― an appendage to her husband. It may have been the case in American suburbia of the time, but in Britain women had got through the war without their husbands, brothers or fathers. Some had joined the ATS, or WAAF, or WRNS and drove ambulances, or worked in a government ministry. Others ended up at Bletchley Park. When Elisa Segrave came upon her late mother’s diaries, she discovered that her mother had excelled at her work as an indexer in Hut 3, then in Hut 3N, at Bletchley Park, from 1941-43; and was promoted to 4th Naval Duty Officer during Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa. She had several jobs in Bomber Command and later saw its effects in the ruined towns of Germany where she had her last job in the WAAF. On her days off she travelled in a weapon carrier with her American boyfriend. The Girl From Station X is an illuminating read.

The war had a liberating effect: women were hardly about to exchange their newfound freedom in peacetime for baking cakes and a life cushioned by nappies. Cooke stressed how the old and the new were pulling against each other in fifties Britain, which was on the cusp of modernity ― heralding the sixties. Women were expected to settle down, marry and have kids, yet having had a taste of freedom,  they wanted to do their own thing and be independent. The way women today juggle home and career and feel guilty about it was not the case then, when women just went for it and did not consider the consequences. The term ‘latchkey kid’ dates from the fifties. Continue reading Spotlight | The Fifties Woman #OnWilderShores @AuthorsClub lunch @MsRachelCooke

Spotlight | Patrick Modiano: public novelist, private man

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. There are dispiriting times when you start working on the first few pages of a novel. Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.” So spoke Patrick Modiano − for whom the fog has most certainly lifted − at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm, on 7 December 2014. He is the eleventh French writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

A refreshing antithesis to the self-promoting writer blasting forth at every opportunity, Modiano is a private man and remains aloof from the Parisian literati. There is a big difference between writing − intensely personal − and doing a turn in front of a live audience. Writers who feel that the words on the page are the point and everything else − including the web − is a distraction, could well be heartened by Modiano’s words, “A writer – well, a novelist at least – often has an uneasy relationship with speech. Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.”

Continue reading Spotlight | Patrick Modiano: public novelist, private man

Review | BILAL: On the Road with Illegal Immigrants, Fabrizio Gatti | Editions Liana Levi

As a lobbyist for translation, I occasionally write reader’s reports giving an opinion on French books that have been submitted to a publishing company for consideration. Translations of good non fiction are rare compared to fiction, and fewer grants are available. As its the indies who tend to take risks on new writers-new translations, they have less funds and back up than the majors. So good books often get nowhere — very much the case for Bilal sur la route des clandestins by Fabrizio Gatti which I was commissioned to report on back in 2011. A university press with an endowment could be a possibility? Hence this post . . . The book would need updating of course, easily done.  For now it is available in Italian and French so if you can read those languages — buy it!

BILAL SUR LA ROUTE DES CLANDESTINS by Fabrizio Gatti (478pp Liana Levi 2008)  Winner of the premio Terzani in 2008

Fabrizio Gatti is a reporter for the Italian weekly, L’Espresso. Human rights defender and campaigner against organised crime, he has undertaken numerous undercover investigations. Ryszard Kapuscinski believed that news is all about political struggle and the search for truth, not profits and ratings as is invariably the case today. Gatti is a kindred spirit. He follows in Kapuscinski’s footsteps with this humane and heartbreaking book. Bilal, on the road with illegal immigrants is literary reportage at its best; an odyssey into the heart of darkness. Gatti is not only an excellent and courageous investigative journalist, but a real writer.

Continue reading Review | BILAL: On the Road with Illegal Immigrants, Fabrizio Gatti | Editions Liana Levi

Spotlight | A writer’s diet, Grub Street eats & cooking #OnWilderShores

Writing is a tiring business requiring energy and sustaining snacks. Chekhov had a weakness for oysters, Proust knocked back espressos, Sartre went nuts for halva and H. P. Lovecraft relished spaghetti bolognese smothered in parmesan cheese.

In a postcard sent to Cecil Beaton some time during the 1970s, Lesley Blanch describes her daily life as she is writing the biography of Pierre Loti: “I get up at 7, go on all day til dusk − hardly an eye for the birds, yelling to be fed. I’ve disconnected the telephone, such bliss − don’t go out or see anyone, don’t ever get dressed. Some days restful sluttishness prevails. Djellaba over a nightgown is the only way to work, for me − and no hairdressers + all that tra-la-la. But the appearance suffers − so does the figure. I sit, sit, sit, + eat delicious brown bread with tidal waves of butter.”

Continue reading Spotlight | A writer’s diet, Grub Street eats & cooking #OnWilderShores

Spotlight | Lesley Blanch and the Art of Narrative Non Fiction

Narrative non fiction: a new category

When Lesley Blanch wrote that “Journey into the Mind’s Eye is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category . . .” the label narrative non-fiction did not yet exist. Her autobiography about the early part of her life was published in 1968. She was ahead of her time. Like Rebecca West and Truman Capote, Lesley Blanch was experimenting with different forms and techniques to tell a damn good ‘true’ story.

Lesley Blanch claimed she could not invent, hence choosing biography rather than fiction, although her storytelling was underpinned by a vivid imagination and scholarly research. The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus took six years to complete and required thorough investigation in Russia and Turkey.

What is narrative non fiction?

Narrative non-fiction is not just a convenient label used by publishers to help booksellers categorise their titles and display them, or a new genre fresh out of American writing schools for literary critics to argue about. It is favoured by clever young editors like Leo Hollis at Verso, or Richard Milner at Quercus, as a way to get across difficult, or dry, ideas in an engaging manner. People are most interested in other people and their experiences, not the dusty archives of research. To take the reader on a scientific, or philosophical, or historical journey of discovery by means of a series of a well-written scenes knitted together to form a compelling whole, as opposed to recounting how A then B then C happened in a cut-and-dried linear fashion, makes for a more exciting read and a saleable book.

Continue reading Spotlight | Lesley Blanch and the Art of Narrative Non Fiction

Spotlight | Anthony Aris | A very special birthday party and book launch

“Authors get the light, publishers stay in the shade – a famous twinned Tibetan concept, nyin and drib. But writers tend to overlook the fact that without the drib, there would not, could not, be nyin. There are well established conventions for celebrating scholarly achievement – the Festschrift – being the standard offering, while publishers can count themselves lucky if they can escape opprobrium and get away with obscurity.” So write Charles Ramble and Ulrike Roesler in answer to the question Why a Book? at the beginning of Tibetan & Himalayan Healing: An Anthology for Anthony Aris, published by Vajra Books, Kathmandu. “When we heard in June 2014 that Anthony was not in the best of health, an anthology on the subject of healing seemed like an appropriate gesture as a larger-than-life get well card.”

“Medicine Buddhas and Divination: Four Short Tibetan Texts on Healing”; “Melancholia in the Teaching on the Six Lamps”; “The Great Rite which Redeems for the Crosses of Malicious Gossip”; “A Frozen Stiff Upper Lip: The Maladies and Remedies of the Younghusband Mission of 1904”; “A Note on Tsha chu. The Therapeutic Hot Springs of Bhutan”; “How to Recognise a Useless Doctor: Excerpts from an Indian Yoga Comedy”; “The Call of the Cuckoo to the Thin Sheep of Spring: Healing and Fortune in Old Tibetan Dice Divination Texts” . . . Sixty contributions by leading luminaries are gathered in a single volume, opening a window on to some of the core therapeutic beliefs, traditions and practices that lie at the heart of Himalayan and Tibetan civilization. Embellished with superb illustrations, this collection is a most unusual and intriguing read for the uninitiated, yet curious, such as myself.

Continue reading Spotlight | Anthony Aris | A very special birthday party and book launch

Lesley Blanch Archive | Amazons

Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017)
On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)

Terrible and wonderful, the steely Amazons went to battle against Bellerophon, and Homer sang them to eternal fame. Boadicea led her woad-dyed hordes upon the unwary Romans at Londinium. Jeanne d’Arc stormed Orleans, a valorous mystic. Christian Davies of the Scots Greys, swaggered her way through the battle of Ramilies. Brandishing her cutlass, Mary Read joined Captain Rackham’s pirate crew. Théroigné de Méricourt led the pike-bearing furies on Versailles . . . their grandchildren, the Communards, rallied round Louise Michel, “the Red Virgin of Montmartre,” while all the bravura of the Polish Amazons was pitted against Tzarist-Russian oppression.

In the American Civil War, Mme. Velasquez posed as Capt. Harry Burford, with mock-moustachios to aid her alibi. At the battle of Mentana, Mme. Blavatsky abandoned astral preoccupations to fight for Garibaldi. In the October Revolution, the Women’s Battalion held the Winter Palace for Kerensky. Only yesterday, in Spain and China, thousands of unknown women fought bravely, bloodily . . . Terrible and wonderful, the Amazonian spirit lives on, manifest alike through ages of troubadours, whalebone or machinery; the clash of spears and sabres merge into the thunders of modern bombardment.
Continue reading Lesley Blanch Archive | Amazons

Review | James Reed’s Book Launch at The Idler Academy W11

From The Idler magazine and Clerkenwell Literary Festival, to The Idler Academy in Notting Hill: the coffeehouse and bookshop opened by Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull in 2011 is a magnet for creative entrepreneurs who want to turn dreams into reality. It is a wonderful place to enjoy a snack and a browse in convivial surroundings, learn how to play the ukulele, or master business for bohemians. Their special events and book launches where you can meet fellow idlers constructively idling are well worth the effort. James Reed’s Why You? 101 Interview Questions was launched there yesterday evening.

How to . . . eat, work, love, play, give birth, get real, get spiritual, get a guru, die . . . the plethora of How to books on the market is dizzying. Within the genre is a subset which addresses the question, “Why didn’t I get the job?” This is something with which I am less  familiar, maverick bookblaster that I am, now out of the corporate game. The other idlers at the launch did not come across as being obvious buyers for the book other than for their children, perhaps, who hope to get work in a cold economic climate.
Continue reading Review | James Reed’s Book Launch at The Idler Academy W11

Spotlight | Boom not Bust: A new chapter in the story of translation in the UK

Translations on the UK market

In a piece for The Swedish Book Review published in 1997, I stated that, “Roughly 3% of the titles published in the UK every year are translations (as opposed to 30-40% in France and Germany).” It is a puzzling paradox that Britain is such a multi-cultural society yet so insular when it comes to ‘foreign’ writers in translation. Especially since book-buyers just want a good story and are not particularly concerned about its provenance.

Dr Jasmine Donahaye’s 2012 survey Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland is unequivocal: “Literary translation in the UK and Ireland – whether assessed according to its broader definition or restricted to the genre categories of poetry, fiction and drama – is a little higher than the often-cited 3% figure. Indeed it is consistently greater than 4%, and, over the sample years, consistently increases.”

She gives the following statistics:
“The percentage of all publications that are translations: 2.21% in 2000 ; 2.65% in 2005 ; 2.43% in 2008.
“The percentage of poetry, fiction and drama that is translation: 4.37% in 2000 ; 4.51% in 2005 ; 4.59% in 2008.
“The percentage of all literary genres (the entire 800 Dewey range) that is translation: 4.17% in 2000 ; 4.20% in 2005 ; 4.37% in 2008.”

Continue reading Spotlight | Boom not Bust: A new chapter in the story of translation in the UK