Top Reads 2014

It’s tough to have to choose one, and all the books below have been excellent reads, but the one standout for me was Prayers for the Stolen, because I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year,  it’s always top of mind when anyone asks me about a good book I’ve read recently, just as I still recommend Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton from 2013 and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child from 2012, all outstanding reads.

The Stats

This year I read 57 books, basically one book a week, 79% of my reads were fiction, 16% non-fiction and 5% poetry. I managed to read books by authors from 18 different countries and this year 40% of what I read was translated from another language. 54% of the books I read were printed books and 46% I read on a kindle. 63% were written by a female author.

Outstanding Read of the Year 2014

Prayers For The Stolen by Jennifer Clement

prayers for the stolen This book had a huge impact on me at the time of reading,  a fictional account of a girl named Ladydi growing up in a part of Mexico where it is dangerous to be a girl, so the mother’s disguise them as boys, from the moment of their birth.

An insightful read, about a tragic issue, told with empathy and humour and helping to raise awareness of the plight of so many women and girls unable to speak out for themselves. A must read.

 

And in no particular order, My Top Reads for 2014!

Top Fiction

1.Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated from Russian by James E. Falen)

Eugene Onegin 7 8The epic book length poem Eugene Onegin was my surprise read of the year and pure delight. I avoided reading it for years and years thinking it would be inaccessible. It was hilarious and a riveting read.

I read it two chapters at a time in a read along and was thoroughly entertained by that cad Eugene Onegin and bemused by that reader of far too many romantic novels Tatiana, and broken-hearted at the fate of the poet. Absolutely brilliant and I would quite like to read another translation after some of the comparisons other readers made as we read, what turns out to be not quite the same version. More Pushkin definitely.

2. Nada by Carmen Laforet (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Nada (2)Nada was being passed around friends all exclaiming its wonder, a book written by the author when she was 23 years old and based on her own similar experience as a young woman moving to Barcelona to study. It takes place in the shadowy aftermath of a traumatic civil war, its effect hanging over her family. Andrea, now an orphan, arrives to stay with relatives, however her stay is not as she’d imagined it, the family are full of eccentricities and Andrea finds more refuge in the gloomy streets and with her new friends than in the oppressive atmosphere of the apartment among her strange relatives. A feverish, coming of age classic.

3. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

We That Are Left (2)A title I was waiting for, having loved Eden’s Garden and this promised to be just as good, set in World War One and featuring a cast of women characters who are changed by the war in ways that will continue long after.

From Cornwall to Wales to France, we follow Elin as her husband leaves for the war and she must assume responsibility for the family estate and is propelled into a dangerous mission to rescue her friend in the thick of fighting. It concerns the changes thrust upon women during the war and their refusal to go back to the more submissive role that was expected of them before the war. They prove they are just as capable of handling a crisis and if necessary will manage on their own. Brilliant, thrilling and unputdownable.

4.The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

True DeceiverThe True Deceiver is the first novel I have read by Tove Jansson, having read three collections of her short stories (The Summer Book,  A Winter Book and Art in Nature) all of which I enjoyed, so this was an interesting departure to stay with the same characters throughout and it is quite a thrilling read, clearly inspired in part by her own experience, facing up to the artist struggle.

It is the perfect winter read, set in the snow bound winter months, while they await the thaw. Anna is an aging artist who lives alone and is content for it to be that way, her contact with the outside world through the many letters from her fans. But someone in the village has other plans and slowly makes herself indispensable to the older woman, preying on her vulnerabilities. And the true deceiver? That is the question that reading the novel reveals.

4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant FriendIf you haven’t yet succumbed to #FerranteFever keep an eye out for this book and the two that follow it, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay. They narrate a friendship between Elena and Lila, set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples, one tries to escape  her place in society via a university education and a marriage that will elevate her status while the other uses her intelligence in a relentless, fearless and  often ruthless quest to survive. The books are compelling and may be semi-autobiographical, however the author remains an enigma, using a pseudonym and not ready to own up to his/her identity – believing that if a book has any merit, it will find its audience.

5. The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismialov (translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield)

The Dead Lake

This is why I wait until the end of the year before creating my list, because who knows what special book gems we might discover before the final curtain call. The Dead Lake is part of the Peirene Press coming-of-age series published in 2014 and tells the story of Yerzhan, a boy growing up at a remote railway siding in Kazakhstan, an area where atomic weapon testing is carried out.

There are only two communities where he lives and he adores the neighbour’s daughter and it is to impress her that he walks into that lake at 12-years-old and stops growing. It is a stunning and unforgettable novella and an insightful glimpse into a nomadic culture, that we are privileged to be able to read thanks to the passionate endeavours of our friends at Peirene Press.

6. The Bees by Laline Paull

Bees2

The Bees is an extraordinary feat of the imagination, narrated from the point of view of Flora 717 a sanitation worker bee. It is about life in an orchard hive and the threats both internal and external to the hive. Totally convincing, the Hive is like a cult and each bee knows its place, its role and responds by instinct and receives energy from the Hive Mind, the Queen and the collective conscience of the Hive. Flora is different and as we discover why, we begin to fear for her life. A stunning, original work, I was enthralled but the story and love that the author was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan palace in translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.

 

Top Non-Fiction

Ex Libris1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

This was the very first book of the year I read and a special read for booklovers. It contains 18 bookish essays from the bibliophile Anne Fadiman, written over a period of four years, in which she talks about how she became so book obsessed and shares many often hilarious anecdotes. It was also recommended and gifted to me by the talented blogger and world-wide reader VishyThe Knight.

Arctic dreams2. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

First published in 1986 and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction in the US, Artic Dreams is a compilation of poetic nature essays written by a compassionate, scientific, nature loving mind, as he observes those creatures whose natural habitat is the arctic, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic people. Some of my best recommendations, as was the case with this book, come from Valorie at Books Can Save a Life.

Vera Brittain3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I planned to read this right from the beginning of 2014 when it was republished as an anniversary edition to commemorate the beginning of World War one. Vera Brittain was an intellect and despite it being seen as a waster of time by many ion the provinces where she came from she set of for Oxford to compete with the boys, whom most of her friends were.

One by one, her friends, her brother, her fiance went off to fight and not able to concentrate on something that seemed meaningless in the face of war, she volunteered as a nurse. Testament of Youth is taken from her journals and is an insightful, at times heartbreaking insight into a lost youth, and an attempt to understand humanity and to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. A brilliant book, about to be released as a feature film.

H is for Hawk4. H is for Hawk by Wendy Macdonald

There haven’t been so many non fiction titles that called out to me this year, but this one did immediately and I pushed it to the top of the pile to read and was riveted by Helen Macdonald’s grief stricken, obsessive encounter with Mebel, he Goshawk she raises, spurning human company and comfort in the aftermath of her father’s death. Great to see it then win the Samuel Johnson prize.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming5. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

What a delightful memoir in free verse from a well-known children’s writer, writing of her childhood spent between South Carolina and Brooklyn, NY tales of family members, a new brother, her passion for words, being Jehovah Witness and making a great friend. Reminds me of the equally talented Margarita Engle and her collection of novels in verse.

 

Voila!

So what was your outstanding read(s) for 2014?

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda tr. by Adriana Hunter

We are in the city of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean in the 1960’s, though this is no seaside idyll.

Tripoli SkyThe narrative follows in the footsteps and the mind of a boy named Hadachinou who prefers the company of his mother, her friends, great-aunt’s and escorting girls sent on errands who are not yet kept indoors, bound by the shackles of marriage, in a society where a river of seething discontent courses through the veins of many, where the sexes barely tolerate each other and anyone who seems to have escaped the marriage trap is resented their so-called freedoms.

Hadachinou is privy to the thoughts, gossip and attitudes of women, a witness to their interior lives, he listens to their stories and absorbs their repressed desires as his own begin to awaken.

The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real times and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties , all in the same breath and their bodies were at peace.

I sometimes wondered how these women who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking any true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over. That was for the people on the other side of the wall: the men, the sheikhs, the governors and their hunting dogs! Scheming and calculating, diplomacy and power struggles were their domain.

Here with the women, my guardian angels, there were just words, spoken openly and easily, flitting and whirling about, a life force in themselves. Without these moments of trusting abandon, they would have dried up with sorrow. Or imploded as they toiled over their cooking pots.

Taynal Mosque

Taynal Mosque Source: wikipedia

While the men are at work, or at the mosque or in the coffee houses, the women finish their work and make time to see each other.

Here, great-aunt Nafissa has had enough of the women bad mouthing his mother’s childhood friend Jamila, words they only speak when his mother leaves the room, venomous remarks spiralling into bitterness about what they perceive as her secret life; flushed with rage, aunt Nafissa rails against them:

‘Leave Jamila alone,’ she cried. ‘Let her live her life. Its only because you’re jealous that you see evil in everything. She and her friends allow themselves freedoms you don’t have, freedoms you envy because your husbands keep you on a tight leash. What would you have her do? Stay at home like you, sitting on cushions and sucking on loukoums while you wait for men who never come home? You think those women are living bad lives? You make me laugh! But you don’t know when to hold your tongues, that’s for sure, and you’re full of spite. And, anyway, it’s not as if any of this has ever stopped you taking their money!’ she added, always ready to speak out against injustice.

OldTripoli

Old Tripoli Source: wikipedia

It is not easy to read about a repressed patriarchal society without much glimmer of hope, a slice of life narrative set in a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.

I found it a sombre read, left wondering if this boy will be changed by virtue of his proximity to the women folk, or whether that might become a reason for his need to escape, lest he not fit in.

Looking out to sea, I remembered what Hadja Kimya had said: ‘Hadachinou, keep yourself busy doing simple things that delight you. Give yourself a goal. The soul of life is the little things, the minor events no one notices… That’s where life is, the pleasure of being alive, otherwise there’s just this vast blueness casting its shadow over us. Go on, keep yourself busy, do something, and then you might find yourself one day.’

This is cultural insight beyond the normal bounds of the English language, thanks to the translation of Adriana Hunter and the passion of Peirene Press in bringing these kinds of stories into the mainstream.

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, tr. Andrew Bromfield

Dead Lake 2An astonishing tale tinged with sadness, as recounted by the protagonist Yerzhan to a stranger on a train journey across the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, that in part continues to be imagined by the listener as from time to time, the young narrator sleeps.

The story begins when the boy enters the carriage playing Brahms on his violin in a manner that causes everyone to stop and look at him, not believing it possible that a boy who looks about ten to twelve-years-old could play to such perfection and with such awe-inspiring panache.

“Then, just as he had the entire carriage gaping after him open-mouthed, he broke off in mid-note. He slung the violin back over his shoulder like a rifle.

‘Wholesome local beverage – entirely organic!’ he exclaimed in a thick, adult voice. He swung a canvas sack down off his other shoulder and pulled out an immense plastic bottle of a yoghurt drink, either ayran or kumis. I approached him, without even knowing why.”

train trackYerzhan grows up at a remote railway siding in a part of the country where atomic weapons are tested. Two families live near each other, their lives more intertwined than appears on the surface.

Yerzhan and the neighbour’s daughter Aisulu travel many miles by donkey to go to school and many more miles to see the strange but talented bachelor, Petko, a Bulgarian violin teacher.

Every so often the ground shakes, another sun rises and everything is still. Then there is the Zone, that area where it is so silent, his ears ring.

“And the thing that loomed over him like a visceral fear could happen in the middle of the sweltering summer, when sheep suddenly started bleating as if they were under the knife and went dashing in all directions, cows dug their horns into the ground and the donkey squealed and rolled around in the dust…

And a slight rumble would run through the ground, Yerzhan’s legs would start trembling, and then his whole body, and the fear would rise up from his shaking knees to his stomach and freeze there in a heavy ache, until the sky cracked over his head and shattered into pieces, crushing him completely, reducing him to dust, to sand, to scraps of grass and wool. And the black whirlwind hurtled past above him with a wild howl.”

A young boy playing the dombra

A boy plays the dombra

His friend Aisulu’s Granny tells him a story of his conception and birth, intertwined with local legend; not knowing who his father is, he often replays the story in his mind, trying to understand it, and who he is.

“Granny Ulbarsyn’s story  wasn’t the only thing that had sunk deep into Yerzhan’s heart.  Grandad’s dombra playing stayed with him too. When no one was looking the boy took the instrument down from its nail high up on the wall. And while his grandfather tapped with the hammer on railway carriages, Yerzhan strummed the dombra secretly, imitating the old man’s knitted brows and hoarse voice. It didn’t take long before he picked out a few familiar melodies and then, with the keen eye he used to keep watch on Uncle Kapek’s behaviour, he followed and memorised  his granddad’s finger movements.”

Dead LakeYerzhan learns the dombra and violin and is bright, but the real light in his life is Aisulu, a light that gradually fades upon his reaching the age of 12, when he walks into the forbidden, radioactive Dead Lake to impress her and from that day on stops growing, destined to watch her pass him by.

“Other people noticed it too and wanted to help. Granny Ulbarsyn fed him with the livers of new born spring lambs, Grandad Daulet ordered carrots from the city through his  friend Tolegen,  and Uncle Shaken brought disgusting fish oil back from his shift. But that only produced a foul-smelling burp! Yerzhan ate it all. But he had stopped growing.”

Another of Peirene Press’s excellent novella’s, this really is an afternoon read, but so rich in the telling, it is a pleasure to go back and reread passages with the familiarity of having read the story. It is a tale tinged with  inevitable sadness as people live with the invisible terrors that are an environmental legacy of the Cold War.

If you want to read more contemporary European literature outside the English language, you can do no better than take out a fabulous subscription with Peirene Press. Three novellas a year and the kind you’ll rarely find in most bookshops.

Note: The author Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan and moved to Uzbekistan as a young man. He writes in both Russian and Uzbek and his novels have been translated into many European languages. Sadly his work is banned in Uzbekistan today and he has had to flee the country due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.

The Closet of Savage Mementos by Nuala Ní Chonchúir & A Peek at What the Irish are Reading

After seeing her list of Books of the Year for 2014 published in the Irish Times, I remembered how much I admire Eileen Battersby’s articles and her choice of books to read and review.

The Captain's DaughterEven today, when I skim the reviews featured by the Irish Times, the one I click on, sure enough, is written by Eileen Battersby and reading it makes me think perhaps I could start 2015 the same way I started 2014, with Alexander Pushkin, here she describes his novel The Captain’s Daughter, republished in September 2014 in the NYRB Classic series, as a masterclass in storytelling.

Wednesday's Child

The critically acclaimed Number 1 Bestseller I’d never heard of!

So back when her Books of the Year came out, I had a look around the rest of the Books Section of the Irish Times, in part intrigued recalling a family member visiting via a short stopover in Ireland last summer and bringing bestselling books I had never heard of.

A History of LonelinessI was interested to read about their new book club and experience of reading John Boynes novel of a priest, A History of Loneliness and the intelligent, respectful way their readers are able to discuss and disagree in comments without resorting to the kind of insulting rhetoric that stops me from reading comments on most other mainstream media.

This month they are reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s The Closet of Savage Mementos, an author and a book I had not heard of, so after reading the blurb which sounded appealing and said to be inspired in part by the authors own experiences, I jumped right in.Irish Times Book Club

The Blurb

Lillis takes a summer job working at a lodge in a small lochside village in the Scottish Highlands. Leaving home is a way to escape her sorrow and despair following the death of her boyfriend and a testy relationship with her mother, Verity.

In Scotland she encounters love and excitement but when a series of unexpected events turn her new found life on its head, she is forced to make a life-changing decision, one that will stay with her for her whole life.

My Review

Divided into two parts, Book One takes place in 1991 when Lillis is almost 21-years-old and in the throes of grief, after the death of her close childhood friend Donal, early on New Year’s Day.

She had already made plans to leave Dublin and take up a waitressing job in Kinlochbrack, a fishing village in Scotland and it is while living there, that she moves through the phases of grief and denial, falling quickly into a new relationship with her boss, 51-year-old Struan Torrance.

Lillis was ready to leave Dublin, her mother Verity a constant source of irritating worry, her father relatively inaccessible, having remarried and busy working and raising two small boys with his new wife; her brother responding reluctantly to her requests for help when asked, otherwise living a somewhat selfish, disinterested existence.

Here is their conversation when he tells Lillis he’s thinking of going to San Francisco, where all the girls wear flowers in their hair, and the boys too, hopefully, he added.

‘Shut up. You’re just pissed off because you’ll be stuck here forever.’ Robin flipped open his lighter.

‘I won’t, you know. I’ve got a summer job lined up in Scotland.’ I put down my glass.

‘You sneaky bitch. How did you get that? We can’t both go away.’

‘Look, at the moment I need your help with Verity. Promise me you’ll go to the house and talk to her. We can head out together.’

‘Lord, you’re so bossy. Is that why you arranged to meet me, to bully me into being our mother’s saviour?’

In Scotland Lillis has her job, her new boyfriend, instant friends at work, hills to climb and roam, the loch to visit; in her head she often revisits her enduring friendship with Donal, he becomes a resting place in her mind she constantly retreats to, as if waiting for the present to overtake these thoughts yet wondering if that will ever be the case.

It is about the unconscious effect of grief and shows how Lillis fulfills the need that arises from it, trying to fill the gaping hole left by the death of someone so familiar, mixed with the separation from family, a father who is elsewhere. She does things unconsciously and in Book Two, she will awaken from her emotional slumber with an earth shattering jolt.

Things end badly for Lillis in Scotland and after a short spell in Glasgow she returns to Dublin. We don’t learn what happened until she is a 40-year-old woman reflecting on the past, as it suddenly is brought into her present by events.

I don’t wish to reveal what happened in case you decide to read the book, an excellent reason for this to have been chosen as a book club book, as it prompts some very interesting questions about so many issues that will make it an interesting discussion.

“Just like when Donal died, I was pulled tight between forgetting and remembering. Any sense of myself as a competent human being, with things to do and achieve, had left me.”

Book two begins 20 years later, Lillis is pregnant and about to give birth to a daughter, her supportive and loving husband at her side. The pregnancy, birth and raising of the child induce a form of post natal depression and bring back memories and force her to address issues she had chosen to bury deep within her for the last twenty years. Much of it to do with being a mother, believing she had come from a long line of woman who were bad mothers.

“It occurs to me that I might be like Verity – exasperation was her fallback position, her natural state as a parent. Everything Robin and I did irritated her. She roared at us from one end of the day to the other….

Verity held the neglect she learned as a daughter to her heart and carried it forward to her own parenting. I do not want to be the mother that Verity was to me.”

It is a realistic novel with much to discuss and reflect on, both the decisions we make as individuals and those that we make due to the pressures of family and society.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir writes in a style that makes the reader feel right there in the room with her characters, the voices are authentic, the emotions vivid and sometimes disturbing, it’s like being in the front row of a theatrical production, even though the characters are over there, we feel the force of every word uttered and action taken and will likely need to talk about the experience with a friend when it’s over.

If you read it between now and mid-January you can join in or follow the book club discussion at The Irish Times (see the link below).

Miss EmilyMiss Emily

To be published under her original birth name, Nuala O’Connor, (Nuala Ní Chonchúir) has a novel due out in May 2015 called Miss Emilya dual narrative story told alternately from the point of view of Ada (the maid) and Emily Dickinson, the film rights of which have already been acquired.

An author to watch out for!

Links

The Irish Times Book Club

The History of Loneliness

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque translated by A.W.Wheen

Vera BrittainVera Brittain gave us her Testament of Youth, an account of a generation of youth lost whether they lost their lives or survived World War One, for those who lived, something of the essence of youth was lost to them forever and none who were part of it were unaffected or not changed by it.

Earlier in the year Juliet Greenwood gave us a fictional account of woman during World War One in We That Are Left, a novel that highlights the significant changes in the lives of women during that period, to the point of not going back to the way things were.

More recently Richard Flanagan’s Testament of Horrors, which for this reader was more than was possible to absorb, despite the later redeeming passages I may have missed, so visceral were his descriptions.

And now, I add the German Literature classic All Quiet on the Western Front to that tome of war literature that shares something of the experience and its effect, the novel by Erich Maria Remarque telling the story of Paul Baumer, a 20 year old German soldier.

He and his friends are pressured by their schoolmaster to join up early, an action that won’t be forgotten and which will be repaid when they meet again under different circumstances.

“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognise that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces. ”

All QuietHe narrates his journey, their comradeship, their fear, their daily survival. Their small joys often centred around food, their occasional escape, a mild wound or a leave pass and thoughts of how they might ever continue a life other than this if ever there is a peacetime. It is something few can imagine and most don’t want to, it isn’t relevant.

On one of his infrequent visits home, Baumer tries to understand what has changed.

“They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, yes that is it – they feel it, but always with only half of themselves, the rest of their being is taken up with other things, they are so divided in themselves that none feels it with his whole essence; I cannot even say myself exactly what I mean.”

The longer war rages, the further away from their past the young men become, they find solace in each other and even begin to miss the front when they are on leave, as they are no longer the youth they were and those that know them now are not here.

The author was himself a German solider who survived the war, became a teacher and a writer, but when in 1933, his works were banned and publicly burned on the initiative of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels he and his wife left Germany to live in Switzerland. All Quiet on the Western Front had been published at a similar time to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the two narratives were polar apart. The moment Germany elected Hitler to power, he went after Remarque. Sadly, it was his sister who paid the price, convicted of undermining morality as her brother was beyond reach. She was beheaded in 1943.

All Quiet 1st Editiom

1st edition in English

I read this on Armistice Day, 11 November, the day that an armistice was signed in France between the Allies and the Germans in 1918, commemorating the end of hostilities in WW1.

Although it is fiction, it reads like a true account. It is a remarkable book, sharing both the physical and mental aspects of youth at war and their slow realisation of its personal consequences.

It is tragic, sad and true and there is an element of hopelessness, that even though we can come to understand what will happen to those affected by war, there is little to be done to prevent it, we as humanity continue to choose it as a method of punishment disguised as a weapon of peace.

Sidewalks – Essays by Valeria Luiselli translated by Christina MacSweeney

SidewalksValeria Luiselli is a philosophical meanderer whose roving thoughts bring her to a cemetery in Venice in search of Russian poet,  Joesph Brodsky’s tomb and wandering that alluring city’s streets so late at night she is locked out of the one room she managed to find in a convent.

She ponders the map with the slow-moving icon of a plane on the screen as she flies home and thinks about the layout of the land beneath and later will find a connection between a photo of cartographers in the Mexican Map Library and  Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Sidewalks sees her leaving the four walls of her apartment late at night for a last cigarette outside the front door, seeking escape and encountering the advice and wisdom of a doorman who shares his own long life views on how one best comes to know thyself.

“If there still exists a gaze blessed with liminal wisdom, it is the gaze of night-shift doormen. They are the only true free-thinkers – generous men capable of conversing intelligently at midnight; empathetic accomplices, offering the consolation of a companionship replete with the same reprehensible vices you yourself have and defend.”

She laments the age of the individual computer, the window inside the window that has all but eliminated household drama and made high-rise voyeurism unexciting if not nonexistent.

“It is clear that the personal computer is the great modern attack on good old-fashioned voyeurism. From the moment these machines were installed in our homes, the irreversible process of the degeneration of character began and ruled out the possibility of anyone doing anything interesting for the delight of their voyeuristic neighbour.”

Papelos

Original Spanish version

She is interested in spaces, voids, the edge of things, she tries to make sense of her home town in Mexico, a city whose first plan was allegedly scratched into sand and has continued to sprawl out of any recognisable or logical shape ever since.

Her essays reference other essayists as things she observes in her meandering bring back lines once read and remembered, passages of long dead authors become an old-fashioned, enjoyable distraction for a young woman, those words from the past arising unbidden while out walking sidewalks, no electronic media in sight.

In an essay on the river Spree, in Berlin, Fabio Morabito writes:

“A river tends to contain the city it crosses and to curb its ambitions, reminding it of its face; without a river, that is, without a face, a city is abandoned to itself and can become, like Mexico city, a blot.”

It is a slim volume and many of the essays are split into titled paragraphs, the first essay littered with the names and dates of the dead inhabiting the same resting place as Brodsky, although it wasn’t clear to me whether there was a link between the content and the named.

It feels as though there could well be much more to this collection than is picked up on first reading, especially given the original work was written in Spanish and many of the named places are foreign.

Intelligent, introspective essays that delight in being out and about and an appreciative and noteworthy introduction by the Dutch author and translator Cees Nooteboom. An author to watch out for.

Brodsky Luiselli

Joseph Brodsky & Valeria Luiselli

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Brown Girl DreamingI saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.

She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.

“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,

sometimes she says for a while and sometimes

she tells us not to ask anymore

because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay

in the house where she grew up

on the land she’s always known.”

After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.

“Everyone else

has gone away.

And now coming back home

isn’t really coming back home

at all.”

Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.

“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist

Twirl across the page.

When they settle, it is too late.

The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

Then blow gently,

Watch them float

Right out of my hands”

I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.

Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.

Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.

By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.