Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

"You can buy a man's hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no-one can take away from any man so much as a single moment"

As I sit and write this blog post I'm enjoying every bite of a surprisingly well turned out courgette and orange cake that I rustled up yesterday taking advantage of the generosity of my lovely neighbours and their over yielding allotment. Living beside kind people who routinely post vegetables through your letter box is nothing but a blessing and it got me thinking; what treasures could I pass over the garden wall? Until the day as I master pickling, home brew or jam making the best I can offer is a pre-loved paper-back and this week I have just the thing.

A Whole Life (Ein Ganzes Lieben) by Robert Seethaler was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize a few years back but I didn't discover it myself until the release of follow up novel The Tobacconist. I saw Robert Seethaler read from both books at an event organised by the Austrian Cultural Council a few months back and picked up a copy a couple of days later.

A Whole Life is a short novel at only 162 pages but at the end you'll remember a far longer work so rich, though succinct, is the prose and so epic the storytelling. The life in question is that of Andreas Egger, a man of very few words but boundless love and respect for the mountain on which he lives. His whole life is literally played out in this Alpine setting from childhood to an early career constructing cable cars through to war, internment by the Russians and beyond.

Seethaler writes poetically and poignantly about love, loss and tragedy but Andreas Egger is remarkable not so much for what he endures but for the way he copes with the hand he's dealt. Egger simply gets on with life, rolls with the punches and lets the mountain determine his destiny.

As an older man Egger takes on the role of mountain guide; "If you like the mountains, I'm your man" reads his local ad. Escorting small groups along the mountain trails Egger makes sense of everything that he's experienced over the years. An Ordnance Survey map of the heart.

A Whole Life is a beautiful book that needs to be read. The least I can do is pass my copy over the wall with a little note from me; "You've just found your next read"

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler and translated by Charlotte Collins published by Picador, 162 pages.     

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

"But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness"

I picked up a copy of this re-release of Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel when it was published to accompany the new film adaptation. One of the great things about new adaptations for me is the renewed attention given to great writers and the original texts. I'm fascinated by the way purists deplore any adaptation that varies from their view of the author's original intent.

Du Maurier is as much a creator of great films; The Birds, Don't Look Now, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, as she was as a writer of great literature. Hitchcock was a huge fan and du Maurier herself invested in her own movie adaptations and tried to influence casting decisions and filming locations. My point, is that My Cousin Rachel can be read through different mediums and various lenses which merely adds to the cult of Daphne du Maurier in adaptation. In my view,  adaptations are more often concerned with the 'myth' of the original text and the author rather than the text itself, anyhow....

The premise of My Cousin Rachel is straight forward. Elderly Ambrose Ashley winters in Italy, for his health, where he falls in love with his younger cousin Rachel and writes home to his young nephew Philip in Cornwall that he won't be home for a while. Time passes, Ambrose marries Rachel before becoming ill with an apparent brain tumour. Philip travels to Italy but arrives to find that Ambrose is dead.

Its from this point that the plot gets a whole lot more interesting. Rachel travels to England to meet Philip who is already suspicious about the circumstances surrounding his Uncle's death. Snippets of evidence are revealed in letters or through late night conversations. The novel owns much to gothic literature with its dark isolated country-house setting, lonely and mourning Philip and enigmatic and mysterious Cousin Rachel who is at once alluring and fatally dangerous.

Philip's emotional confusion is excellently portrayed by du Maurier; is Rachel an irresistible temptress or a cruel murderer? But it is Cousin Rachel who is the star of the piece. Du Maurier leaves much to the reader to interpret but whichever way feel you're in safe hands with such an accomplished writer who creates truly iconic female leads. My Cousin Rachel is a great read.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier published by Virago, 342 pages.     

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Sunday, 9 July 2017

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

"'I want you to look at me,' he spurted. 'want you to see me, really see me, and then afterwards tell me'"

David Grossman's Man Booker International winning novel A Horse Walks into a Bar is one of the most unique books I've read in a long time. I've read and reviewed a couple of this year's shortlisted works, The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis and Fish Have no Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson, so I knew that the standard was high, but I didn't actually get round to opening Grossman's novel until the prize had already been awarded.

So what's so unique about this novel? Firstly the structure, the narrative takes place in real time over the course of a single evening in a small town in Israel. The narrator is an invited guest to a night of stand up comedy so the story in effect puts us (the reader) in the audience as one comedian, Dovaleh G, holds court.

The second standout feature of the the novel is the way Grossman uses comedy, specifically that much loved form of ironic and satirical Jewish humour, to frame one man's existential breakdown. The novel is translated from the original Hebrew by Jessica Cohen who does an amazing job in making this all work in English.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is tough to read in places. There is little change in pace as Dovaleh's act unravels and he falls further into reflection and ultimatley despair in front of a live and stunned audience. The jokes continue to flow with little breathing space. Reading this novel in one go would be ideal but, with life getting in the way, that leaves the problem that dipping in and out is distracting and, I suspect, what will put many readers off.

For me this was a surprising winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Edouard Louis highly personal and intimate novel has the edge I think, but one that I won't forget reading. The prize is shared with both author and translator and I don't think this accolade will have ever been more deserving than for the pairing of Grossman and Cohen.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

A Man Walks into a Bar by David Grossman and translated by Jessica Cohen published by Vintage, 210 pages.     

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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Fresh reviews of the month's top paperbacks

Fresh reviews of the month's top paperbacks

Follow the link for the full reviews

The Undergound Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

More reviews on their way!

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Friday, 7 July 2017

A bookish photo Tour of Valencia

A bookish photo tour of Valencia....


Valencia is packed full of bookshop cafes like Ubik Cafe in Russafa perfect for browsing the stacks or  relaxing with a cortado and a paperback. Feeling hungry? Check out the Kurt Vonnegut inspired burger restaurant Slaughterhouse just round the corner.

Also in Russafa, Cafecito's shelves are packed full of art, design and fashion magazines to accompany your Turia beer or glass of Agua de Valencia.

No booky tour of anywhere in Spain would be complete without an appearance by Cervantes. I don't think there is a specific Valencian connection but he is is immortalised here in bronze anyway.


Valencia's old town is a warren of streets and hidden squares with second hand bookshops and the unique bookseller and publisher El Doctor Sax: Beat and Books.

Downtown Valencia is only a couple of kilometres from the beach which means a day on a bed with an ocean view and a stack of books is essential. I chose The Marina Beach Club to while away the best part of the day with Philip Roth's American Pastoral.

How cool is this Jonathan Swift inspired kids playground? A huge Gulliver's Travels climbing and sliding adventure right in the heart of the city!

Cafe Berlin is a classic Valencian bar cafe with a cosy lived in look and plenty of bookshelves to browse. Perfect for late night drinks.