Tag Archives: Peirene Press

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini: A Peirene Press Novella

Who could resist the title of this Italian bestseller? A black comedy about a hermit in the Italian Alps, it starts off like Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life and becomes increasingly reminiscent of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead with its remote setting, hunting theme, and focus on an older character of dubious mental health.

Adelmo Farandola hasn’t washed in years. Why bother since he only sees fellow humans every six months when he descends to the valley to stock up on food and wine? When he arrives at the general store at the start of autumn, though, he gets a surprise. The shopkeeper laughs at him, saying he nearly cleared her out the week before. Yet he doesn’t remember having been there since April. Sure enough, when he gets back to the cabin he sees that his stable is full of supplies. He also finds an old dog that won’t go away and soon starts talking to him.

Estranged from his brother, who co-owns the property, and still haunted by the trauma of the war years, when he had to hide in a mine shaft, Adelmo is used to solitude and starvation rations. But now, with the dog around, there’s an extra mouth to feed. Normally Adelmo might shoot an occasional chamois for food, but a pesky mountain ranger keeps coming by and asking if Adelmo has a shotgun – and whether he has a license for it.

When winter sets in and heavy snowfall and then an avalanche trap Adelmo and the dog in the cabin, they are driven to the limits of their resilience and imagination. The long-awaited thaw reveals something disturbing: a blackened human foot poking out of a snowdrift. Each day Adelmo forgets about the corpse and the dog has to remind him that the foot has been visible for a week now, so they really should alert someone down in the village…

The hints of Adelmo’s dementia and mental illness accumulate gradually, making him a highly unreliable point-of-view character. This is a taut story that alternates between moments of humor and horror. I was so gripped I read it in one evening sitting, and would call it one of the top two Peirene books I’ve read (along with The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen).

My rating:

 

Snow, Dog, Foot will be published in the UK on the 15th. It was translated from the Italian by J. Ockenden, who won the 2019 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize for the work in progress. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

 

 

Peirene Press issues its novellas in thematic trios. This is the first in 2020’s “Closed Universe” series, which will also include Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen, about a Norwegian climatologist who has left her family to study seabird parenting and meet up with a lover; and The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, set at a Georgian orphanage. (I’m especially keen on the former.)

Omnibuses, Built-in Bookmarks, Deckle Edge: Book Traits I Love/Loathe

My reading has tipped more towards physical books than e-books recently, and my book acquisitions have been getting rather out of hand after some cheeky charity shopping and an influx of review copies. Plus this afternoon we’re off to Bookbarn International, one of my favorite secondhand bookstores, for an evening event – and naturally, we’ll fit in some shopping beforehand. It would be rude not to after traveling all that way.

With all this tempting reading material piling up, I’ve been thinking about some of the traits I most appreciate in books…

 

Omnibus editions: two to four books for the price of one. What could be better?

Built-in ribbon bookmarks: elegant as well as helpful. I also love how Peirene Press releases come with a matching paper bookmark for every three-book series.

Everything about the hardback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography is gorgeous, in fact. I especially love the vintage illustrations on the endpapers and the half-size dustjacket.

Deckle edge is one of my special loves. For the most part it’s unique to American books (over here I’ve heard it complained about as looking “unfinished”), and always makes me think nostalgically about borrowing books from the public library in my parents’ town.

It may sound shallow, but I love these four novels almost as much for their colorful covers as for their contents. (Is it any wonder one of my favorite tags to use on Instagram is #prettycovers?) Several of these covers have raised lettering as well.

The History of Bees is one of the most attractive physical books I’ve acquired recently. The dustjacket has an embossed image; underneath it the book itself is just as striking, with a gold honeycomb pattern. There are also black-and-white bees dotted through the pages.

Colored text blocks (also called sprayed edges) are so unexpected and stylish.

 

And now for a few physical book traits I’m not as fond of. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve, impossible to photograph, is those matte covers that get permanent fingerprints on them no matter how gingerly you try to handle them.

I wish proof copies didn’t often come in nondescript covers that don’t give a sense of what the finished book will look like. (No ice cream cone on Narcissism for Beginners; no leaping fox on English Animals.) However, keeping in mind that I’m lucky to be reading all these books early, I mustn’t be a greedy so-and-so.

All Fitzcarraldo Editions books are paperbacks with French flaps. Another book I’m reading at the moment, As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths (from Dodo Ink), also has French flaps. It’s not that I dislike them per se. I just wonder, what’s the point?

(See also two related posts: Books as Objects of Beauty and My (Tiny) Collection of Signed Copies.)


Okay, you opinionated book people: what are your favorite and least favorite book traits?

Three Novellas in Translation


The Institute by Vincent Bijlo

[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]

Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).

Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.


The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.

This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.

My rating:

 

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).

It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.

My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.


Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

 

Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić

[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]

How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.

The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.

A few favorite lines:

“One little cloud was urinating.”

“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”

“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”


Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.

My rating:

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (Peirene)

Larry Tremblay is a Francophone writer, theatre director and actor based in Montreal. In addition to three novels, he has published a short story collection and many books of poetry and plays. The Orange Grove (2013), which was longlisted for the 2017 International Dublin (formerly IMPAC) literary award, is the fable-like story of one family in the war-torn Middle East and the way notions of justice and sacrifice drive them to make extreme choices.

Tamara and Zahed live with their twin sons, nine-year-old Aziz and Ahmed, alongside an orange grove planted by Zahed’s father. Soulayed, a militant elder from the next village, describes it thus:

Your father, Mounir, worked his whole life on this arid soil. It was desert here. With God’s help your father worked a miracle. Made oranges grow where there had been only sand and stones.

When Mounir and his wife Shahina are killed in a bombing, Soulayed stands among the ruins and counsels Zahed to seek revenge against their enemies by sending one of his sons to be a suicide bomber. There’s no doubt Soulayed is manipulating this grief-stricken family to his own ends, but he isn’t solely to blame when their culture at large romanticizes martyrdom.

Zahed makes his choice, but Tamara won’t accept it. In a clever reprise of the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, she helps the boys to make a switch right under their father’s nose. The last third of the book, like a coda, zooms ahead 11 years to show us the surviving brother, coming to the end of a four-year theatre training program in Montreal. He’s given a starring role in his teacher’s wartime play but the story line cuts a little too close to the bone, and for the first time he tells a stranger the story of two brothers: one who died and one who lived.

 

Peirene Press issues novellas in trios. This is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die for the crimes of the many. The Orange Grove has a simple style that edges towards flatness but is saved by the occasional striking metaphor (e.g. “Minutes stretched out as if made of dough”). A book about suicide bombing could easily turn mawkish, but the restrained narration reins it in to create a tight and fairly engrossing tale of family ties and religious motivations.

[The third book in the series, Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Orange Grove was published in the UK on May 1st. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating:

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (Peirene)

Originally published in 1910, The Last Summer is a suspenseful epistolary novella by Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), one of the first German women to earn a PhD. She wrote widely across many fields – history, poetry, fiction, and religion – and had an asteroid named after her, earning Thomas Mann’s accolade of “the First Lady of Germany.” I’m grateful to Peirene for resurrecting this German classic as I have a special love for epistolary novels – traditionally told through nothing but letters. You have to be on the lookout for little clues dotted through the correspondence that will tell you who these characters are, how they’re connected to one another, what you need to know about their pasts, and what’s happening now.

last-summerSet across one May to August in the early 1900s, the book joins the von Rasimkara family at their summer home. In response to student protests, patriarch Yegor, the governor of St. Petersburg, has shut down the university and left for the country. With him are his wife, Lusinya; their three twenty-something children, Velya, Jessika and Katya; and Yegor’s new secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu. What the family don’t know, but readers do from the first letter onward, is that Lyu is in league with the student revolutionaries and is in on a plot to assassinate the governor at his summer home.

This central dramatic irony is what fuels much of the book’s tension. All of the von Rasimkaras persist in believing the best about Lyu, even when the evidence seems to point to his deception. Both daughters fall in love with him, Velya calls him their “guardian angel,” and Lusinya is sure of his loyalty even after odd incidents she can’t explain, like finding him standing in their bedroom doorway in the middle of the night and a mysterious letter appearing under her pillow. “In case of doubt, one ought to hold back with one’s judgement,” Lusinya opines.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “psychological thriller,” as the back cover blurb does, but I do think it’s a compelling picture of how different groups and ideologies can be fundamentally incompatible. In my favorite passage, Lyu describes the von Rasimkara family to his friend Konstantin:

My stay here is fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down. It is undeniably a shame about the governor, who is a splendid example of his kind, but I believe that he has already passed his peak.

As I sometimes feel about novellas, the plot is fairly thin and easily could have been spun out to fill a book of twice the length or more. But that is not what Peirene Press books are about. They’re meant to be quick reads that introduce European novellas in translation. This one has a terrific ending – which I certainly won’t spoil, though the title and cover could be read as clues – and is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a winter evening.


[Peirene issues books in trios. This is the first of the three books in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series. The other two, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Last Summer was published in the UK on February 1st. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Other Peirene titles I’ve reviewed:

In the Past Week…

It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:

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Some lovely things have happened in the past week.

  • I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
  • I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
  • (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
  • On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they ran out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
  • We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
  • With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.

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  • This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”

And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.

 

How was your week – in terms of reading and otherwise?

Her Father’s Daughter (Peirene)

Originally issued in 2005, Her Father’s Daughter was French author Marie Sizun’s first of seven novels, published when she was 65. It’s an autobiographical reflection on a painful experience from her childhood: in 1945, when she was four and a half, the father she had never met returned from the war and reentered the family, only to leave again two years later. That is the essential storyline of this spare novella, told from the perspective of a four-year-old girl whose name is France but who is usually just referred to as “the child.”

her father's“Of the outside world, the child still knows pretty much nothing.” Her universe is limited to her Paris neighborhood and apartment; her mother, Liliane (Li), is the star around which she orbits. Li gives her daughter free rein, even leaving her alone in the apartment while she goes shopping. When the child learns that her father, a prisoner of war, is soon to return from Germany, she is anxious and resentful. The “secret, intimate world” she has with her mother looks fragile, and she is jealous of anyone who tries to encroach. Meanwhile her father and grandmother both think France has been spoiled and seek to instill a new sense of discipline.

There’s a secret at the heart of the book, something big that the mother and grandmother are covering up. It involves a trip to Normandy, yet whenever the girl tries to speak of the event later on, they deny it and tell her she’s only dreaming. My favorite passages of the book recount her helpless anger as she tries to expose their lies: “Fury from the child, who ploughs on, incredulous. Protests. Persists. In vain.” All she can do in retaliation for this deception and the increasing tension between her parents is pour her mother’s perfumes down the sink.

Sizun’s style is characterized by short, simple phrases. The child is not the narrator, yet the prose imitates the straightforward language that a child might use: “A very strange thing for the child, having a father. A father who’s there. At home. All the time. Morning, noon and night.” The compact chapters chronicle the family’s descent into silence, ignoring each other and walking away – which eventually the father does for good.

Peirene issues books in trios. This one is part of the “Fairy Tale: End of Innocence” series, along with The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst. It’s interesting to think about the book in that context, with the Eden of the mother and daughter being shattered by the entry of the father. “Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind,” the child thinks. Unfortunately, I found this novella to be slightly monotonous, with a particularly flat ending. I’ll leave you with a few words from the author about what she was trying to do with the book:

I needed to tell this story. To speak about that wound. … As my writing progressed and the book took shape, I felt this therapy wasn’t only for my personal use but spoke to everyone who, like me, may have been immersed in misunderstandings, in emotional distortions with loved ones, for example being forced to choose between a father and a mother.

It’s not exactly a cheery Father’s Day read, but an intriguing little book all the same.

 

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.

My rating: 3 star rating


Note: I’m traveling until the 24th so won’t be responding to comments right away, but will be sure to catch up soon after I’m back. I always welcome your thoughts!

The Man I Became (Peirene)

The latest book from Peirene Press is narrated by a gorilla. That’s no secret: it’s an explicit warning given in the blurb. Yet the narrator doesn’t remain a gorilla. The clue is in the title: in The Man I Became, the eleventh novel by Belgian Flemish author Peter Verhelst (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), various species are captured and forcibly humanized. Our narrator – whose name we never know – remembers his happy life in Africa:

We caught termites by pushing long twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds and then licking the twigs clean. … We hung from branches one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our bliss was never going to end.

But soon his fellows start disappearing, and eventually the riders come for him too. He’s captured and marched across the desert to the sea to be shipped to the New World. The gorillas’ training begins soon after they arrive.

We learned to walk upright. ‘Faster! Taller!’ said the human. … Then we learned how to shave. … We learned a new language word by word. We learned to eat from a bowl and then with knife and fork. … We learned to powder our skin to make it lighter.

man i becameAt this point I started to get a bit nervous about the book’s racial connotations. Especially as the gorillas-in-transition become sexual objects, I wondered what Verhelst could be attempting to say about the notions of the noble savage and the purification of the race.

The creatures’ progress is carefully documented. They carry phones that function as identification as well as an external memory. The art of conversation is something they practice at cocktail parties, where the narrator learns that he and his kind are not the only ones; giraffes, buffalo, leopards, parrots, lions and bonobos have all been subjected to the same experiment. With all of them together in the same room, the animals have to suppress their natural fear reactions.

The narrator becomes an animal trainer for the evolution-in-action show at Dreamland, an amusement park with roller coasters and fast food. There are different classes of animals, you see; some remain animals and do menial duties, while a chosen few are transformed into humans. He halfheartedly looks for his brother and has a brief affair with Emily. When a violent incident leaves several dead and the narrator’s human is caught acquiring animals through the black market, Dreamland’s very existence is threatened. (If you know the history of the real Dreamland, a longtime Coney Island attraction, you may have an inkling.)

This novella is scarcely 120 pages. Short books can be wonderful, but that’s not the case if there’s no space to craft a believable plot. The pace is so quick here that there’s no chance to bed into scenes and settings, and the narrator is never entirely convincing – whether as a gorilla, a man or something in between. Too much of the book feels dreamlike and fragmentary.

Meanwhile, the ideology bothered me. Is this simply a social satire à la Animal Farm, to which it’s compared in the prefatory material? A sort of ‘some animals are more equal than others’ message? If so, then, well, that’s been done before. Nor is there any shortage of books mocking caste systems and eugenic experimentation. Apart from a handful of memorable lines, the prose is quite simplistic, and the overall storyline doesn’t feel original.

Verhelst has written that he was inspired by three things: a troop of cheeky baboons encountered in South Africa, the history of the early-twentieth-century Dreamland, and news of the completed human genome project. “What is a human? Is it a creature that can smile while walking on two legs? A creature with a signature and a mobile phone?” he asks. These are interesting questions, certainly, but I felt they were not explored with particular depth or panache here.

The Man I Became was my third Peirene book, after The Looking-Glass Sisters. This one was a disappointment, but I will not let that deter me from trying more, including the other two in the “Fairy Tale series: End of Innocence”: Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake.

With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.

My rating: 2 star rating

Review: The Looking-Glass Sisters, Gøhril Gabrielsen

Since discovering Peirene Press, a publisher of novellas in English translation (see my “Small Books Are Good, Too” post for a mini-review of one of their previous titles), I’ve been keen to try more of their little gems. This is the second of four novels from Gøhril Gabrielsen, a Norwegian author who lives in the far north of the country in a region called Finnmark. It’s an isolated place she uses to good effect in this novel about two sisters whose lives change – and not for the better – when one of them gets married.

I reign as queen in my room, in spite of the dust and the dirt. I have the silence, my pen and books, and, not least, I own the hours when Ragna is away.

looking-glass sistersOur unnamed narrator is paralyzed from the waist down and keeps to her bed in a home she shares with her older sister, Ragna. Their parents had her late in life and died early, so Ragna has looked after her since they were 19 and 24. They are now in middle age, so for years have rubbed along reasonably well, although there have been small acts of cruelty on either side – for instance, as a child the narrator planted chewing gum in Ragna’s bed so she’d have her luxurious hair cut off, and Ragna stays in the bathroom so long one morning that the narrator, making her tortuous way downstairs on crutches, has an accident in the hallway.

Our unnamed narrator is paralyzed from the waist down and keeps to her bed in a home she shares with her older sister, Ragna. Their parents had her late in life and died early, so Ragna has looked after her since they were 19 and 24. They are now in middle age, so for years have rubbed along reasonably well, although there have been small acts of cruelty on either side – for instance, as a child the narrator planted chewing gum in Ragna’s bed so she’d have her luxurious hair cut off, and Ragna stays in the bathroom so long one morning that the narrator, making her tortuous way downstairs on crutches, has an accident in the hallway.

A short prologue tells us things have gotten worse: Ragna and her husband of less than one year, Johan, now keep the sister locked up in the attic. In the novella’s core section the narrator returns to the previous year, when Ragna and Johan were courting, to track the decline of this strange “little family with pus and pain in our cuts and scratches.” It all starts with her finding a letter Ragna wrote to a nursing home about committing her sister – and replacing it with a sheet of blank paper.

Our discontented narrator has a compulsion to remind everyone of her inconvenient existence: “I’m here. And I’m bloody hungry!” Whenever Ragna and Johan have friends visit, she is sure to make a scene. Her other acts of resistance are largely passive, though: writing snarky messages in the blank pages of encyclopedia volumes, listening on disapprovingly as Ragna and Johan have sex on the other side of the wall, and cursing Johan by burning his hair. Ragna follows suit by pettishly withholding library books and hot meals.

What we have here is essentially a psychological thriller with a claustrophobic domestic setting. Because we see everything from the narrator’s perspective, we share her sense of outrage at how Johan has upset her comfortable life and “sabotaged our sisterly pact.” At the same time, Gabrielsen implants tiny, clever clues that this is an unreliable narrator:

Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Furthermore, can it be that I, after years of exaggerated care needs, have robbed her of the ability to think, to create a living, inner life?

I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.

Ultimately we have to wonder whether the person who has been telling us this whole story might be mentally compromised. How much of her mistreatment and present condition is she imagining? The way Gabrielsen counterbalances inherent trust in a narrator with skepticism as the story proceeds is remarkable. “I am reduced to an observing eye,” the protagonist tells us – and as readers we both see out of that eye and seek an objective outside view. It’s a gently thrilling book I’d recommend to you in the run-up to Halloween.


Peirene issues books in trios: this is part of the “Chance Encounter series: Meeting the Other,” along with Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger and Raymond Jean’s Reader for Hire.

With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating

Small Books Are Good, Too

Last week I wrote in praise of doorstoppers – books over 500 pages. But I also love really short books: there’s just as much writing skill involved in making a narrative concise, and it can be supremely satisfying to pick up a book and polish it off within a couple hours, especially if you’re in a situation of captured attention as on a plane. Being honest and slightly selfish for a moment, short books are also a great way to build up a flagging year list.

Below I highlight poetry collections, memoirs, short stories and novellas that should be on your agenda if you’re looking for a quick read (number of pages in brackets after each title):

Poetry

I try to always have a book of contemporary poetry on the go, usually by a British poet since I pluck these at random from my local public library shelves. Poetry collections aren’t always ‘quick’ reads, nor should they be, because you often have to read a poem more than once to understand it or truly appreciate its techniques. Still, with most poetry books numbering somewhere between 45 and 90 pages, even if you parcel them out over days or weeks they’ll take much less time than a novel. Pick up something by Mark Doty, Kathleen Jamie, David Harsent or Christopher Reid and you’ll have plenty of beautiful verse to ponder.

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Recently reviewed and recommended:


Short Memoirs

Depending on how thorough they are, autobiographies can often hover around 300 or 400 pages. Looking through my shelves, though, I’ve spotted a few in the 140–160 page range: My Movie Business by John Irving [158], The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby [139], and Winter by Rick Bass [162]. Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey [170], a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.

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Abigail Thomas, one of my favorite memoirists, writes in an episodic style that makes her 200-page books fly by as if they were half that length. Also, Anne Lamott has written two very short faith memoirs that would serve as a good introduction to her style and content for those who haven’t read Traveling Mercies et al.: Help Thanks Wow [102] and Stitches [112].

Recently reviewed and recommended:


Short Stories

I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also the perfect length for reading during a quick meal or car ride. Two short story collections made it onto my “Best of 2014” list: White Man’s Problems by Kevin Morris and The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant.

Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):


Novellas

With some credits for free Penguin books I got hold of Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) [135], a book I’d been hankering to read ever since I came across that terrific title. It’s an enjoyable academic comedy and locked room mystery, with nods to Borges and Poe (though I probably didn’t get them all).

 

I also recently discovered Peirene Press, which exclusively publishes novellas in translation. Their motto is “Contemporary European Literature. Thought provoking, well designed, short.” They publish the novellas in thematic trilogies, with headings such as “Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy” and “Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets.” The book I own from Peirene (scored from a secondhand bookshop in Henley-on-Thames for £1), from the “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments” series, is Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson [122] (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah).

It’s an odd little book, with a mixture of past and present tense and first-, third- and first-person plural narration. Set in the village of Downe, it’s peripherally about the title character, Charles Darwin’s gardener Thomas Davies, a new widower with two children, one of whom has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (newly identified). It’s thin on plot, it must be said. Daniel Lewis, the verger of Downe for five years, was dismissed for stealing from the church and is beaten up when he comes back to town; some characters think and talk about Darwin’s theory and Davies’s bereavement; there’s an overturned cart.

My favorite section, “At the Anchor,” is composed of conversations at the village pub, and my favorite individual lines reflect on Darwin’s influence on contemporary thought:

“Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.”

“Great men are remembered, like Mr Darwin, a genuine monolith. We small folk are mere sand, washed by the waves as they go back and forth.”

“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”

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If you’re looking to get through a classic in an afternoon, why not try one of these (full text available for free online through Project Gutenberg or other initiatives): Animal Farm by George Orwell [95], Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton [181] or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) [108]. E. M. Forster’s novels also read very quickly, and several of John Steinbeck’s novels are quite short. Whether or not you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, you’ll want to read the sparkling, bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote [100]; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”

Four novellas together don't stack up very far compared to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Even four novellas put together don’t stack up very far compared to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald [123]; all her books are similarly concise, so you may want to give her a try. The next novella on the pile for me is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons [126]. I had never heard of the author, but the title and description lured me into buying it from a library book sale on a trip back to America (for 25 cents, why not?!). It’s a Southern Gothic story with an eleven-year-old narrator whom Walker Percy likened to Holden Caulfield. The alluring first line: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”

 

For more ideas, see these two Publishers Weekly’s lists:

10 Best Books Shorter than 150 Pages” (only repeats one of my suggestions)

10 Best Short Story Collections You’ve Never Read

 

Off topic, but today is a milestone for me: it marks exactly two years that I’ve been a freelance writer!


Are you fond of short books? Do you prefer them to doorstoppers? What are some of your favorite novellas? All comments welcome!