As a father myself the idea of what my sons might be thinking about me kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I read this heart breakingly honest...moreAs a father myself the idea of what my sons might be thinking about me kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I read this heart breakingly honest letter from Franz Kafka to his father.
their relationship was one clearly troubled and beset by the dominance of the father and the continual failure of Franz to feel he could live up to what was expected of him. He failed to take a role in the family business, failed to find favour for his writing and caused serious upset with his plans to marry.
But this letter, a love letter from a loving son to a father, is upsetting because there is a feeling that things would never change. No matter what Franz does or did it would make no difference to a man who is almost blinded by his obstinacy and pride.
That's a message for fathers now and a challenge not to provoke hate and servitude in our own children by pushing our own views down their throats.
As Kafka details the numerous occasions when his father and him clashed and the role of his mother as a not quite innocent bystander you feel for the man. You want him to be able to either breakthrough to his father or as an alternative to break free.
Sadly he is capable of neither and as we all know illness took him before there was a chance perhaps to reach one of those outcomes.
A beautifully produced OneWorld Classic contains a few extracts from Kafka's diaries that reinforce some of the points he makes in his letter.
he might not have wanted it printed but across the decades it has a message for fathers now and the clashes and battles he describes continue now in households all across his native Prague and well beyond. (less)
This collection of short stories might have plenty of variety but it is all written with great mastery of a form that eludes some writers.
Here the rea...more This collection of short stories might have plenty of variety but it is all written with great mastery of a form that eludes some writers.
Here the reader's attention is grabbed through a number of different ways including thriller, ghost story as well as insights into the social world of 19th century French life.
To pick out a selection from the first third of the book to give a flavour is not too difficult.
Simon's Dad is a heart warming tale of a boy seeking a father to end the bullying at school and as a result ending years of shame and pain for his mother by landing his mother a husband. You find your heart swelling at the end of the story as Simon informs his bullies that their days of targeting him are over.
Then you get a change in mood with the story that gives the title to the collection, A Day in the Country, providing a girl from a shopkeeping family with a moment of love that she can never forget. Her bawdy mother and ineffectual father are used brilliantly to illustrate the difference between those working in the suburbs and country folk.
That difference between the country and the city is also picked up in the story Riding Out which sees a man keen to show his family he can ride knocking down an old woman as he loses control of his steed in central Paris.
If there was a theme to the first third of the collection it might have been countryside and the second has stories that make various references to money. The Necklace describes the costs that borrowing and losing a necklace have on one couple only for them to discover at the end of a decade spent clearing their debts that it wasn't worth a great deal of money.
Penny pinching is on display again in The Umbrella where a woman wants her husband to have a good umbrella but is not prepared to pay for that. As his work colleagues ruin the cheap ones that he turns up to work with she would rather claim on the insurance than pay out for a proper umbrella.
That ability to pierce a side of someone's character is on display again with Bed 29 where a proud and vain solider is unable to show compassion for an old lover struck down with syphillis. Happy to be seen with her when she was beautiful he has no words of comfort for her when she is ill.
The last third of the book contains some of the longer and darker stories. The Little Roque Girl is an account of the discovery of a murdered girl and then the unravelling of the Major's mind. Responsible for her rape and death he finally loses his mind after being haunted by her ghost.
Our Spot is also fairly dark showing off the agression of a couple that lose their fishing spot on the river bank. Their anger at losing out results in the death of the rival fisherman but as the court case recounts the anger and death is more by accident and the fisherman is aquitted.
A great collection of stories that provoke various reactions but come from a writer clearly able to turn his pen at will to deliver stories of very quality.(less)
It is not until the novella is complete and the full scale of the author's literary invention hits you that you really start to appreciate what you ha...more It is not until the novella is complete and the full scale of the author's literary invention hits you that you really start to appreciate what you have just read.
In a nutshell this story charts the life of Barbara von Brandenburg who levaes her home at the age of ten and heads off to marry an Italian Prince of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga. No sooner has she arrived and got married than her husband runs away and spends years fighting and making a name for himself leaving his bride alone to grow from a girl into a woman.
Once he returns they start to get cracking on producing ten children and in having a major influence on 15th century Italian life. In the principality run by her husband Barbara manages to tempt some of the great artists to produce works of wonder that are designed to cement their standing in society and immortalise the family.
Her picture shows an ugly dour looking woman who by the time it was painted was perhaps racked by loss and grief of her husband, the health of her children and the detoriation in relationships with her best friend and cousin Maria.
Told using the information contained in the letters between the cousins this story sketches out a behind the scenes tale of life at the top end of the scale in the 15th century.
The story itself is interesting enough and the relationships between Barbara and her daughter, who she seems to hate to the point of cruelty, and with her sons is intriguing enough. But it is on finding out that the letters never existed. The cousin Maria a work of fiction and the author's knowledge of the real Barbara of Brandenburg is not that great that you realise just how much imagination has been at play here.
It's perhaps a comment on the way that some of these historical biographies are put together that even one completely made up can be as engaging, if not more enjoyable a read, than its non-fiction contemporaries.(less)
When you are first introduced to Gladys Eysenach she is a small old lady sitting in the dock in court charged with the murder of her young lover. The...moreWhen you are first introduced to Gladys Eysenach she is a small old lady sitting in the dock in court charged with the murder of her young lover. The case seems to be open and shut and it's a question of getting the judge to be merciful in the sentence.
But as the focus of the story turns back in time to tell of how Gladys came to find herself going up to the top of society then down into the darkness of murder and a court case you wonder just whether or not you will feel sympathy for this woman.
Certinaly in the courtroom you feel the stirrings of pity although Gladys seems to have a pride that barbs but as you start to encounter her in the prime of her life that split between dislike and pity becomes harder to straddle.
Ultimately this is a story of vanity, fear of growing old and a damming inditement of a society that only values appearances. Once the wrinkles come and the true age is clear you are washed up. Or at least that's what Gladys thinks shoes she does everything she can to exploit her youthful beauty. She goes to extraordinary lengths to shave ten years off her birth certificate and her treatment of her daughter is bordering on the insane.
First she refuses to allow her daughter to marry for fear people will see hoer as an older woman capable of having a daughter of marriagable age. But when her daughter's fiance dies in the trenches Gladys is faced with the new challenge of becoming a grandmother.
Again she rejects the child not so much on the grounds of social disaster but because she is determined never to be called a grandmother.
As she wanders through life, getting ever more desperate to be loved and adored by men, it brings her closer to the moment when her real age could catch up with her. The way she seems to postpone that moment means that on reflection the court case goes in her favour more than you might have initially expected.
Nemirovsky is brilliant at characters and even when there is a select cast, as there is here, she delivers real depth. Add to that her ability to spring a few surprises on the reader and this packs more of a punch than you might expect. (less)
This collection of short stories takes you into the minds of various female characters and into the lives of several Parisians all with a search for h...moreThis collection of short stories takes you into the minds of various female characters and into the lives of several Parisians all with a search for happiness in common.
One of the ways they look for contentment is in the arms of a lover but often that ends in failure but with them almost pre-programmed for love they continue to search for replacements. Most of these characters have children but they stay firmly in the background most of the time. The children seem to be a physical reminder of previous relationships and failures to find lasting love in the past.
But beyond love, which is clearly a dominant theme, there are observations here about the difficulty some women have on finding an identity post-motherhood and post divorce. In Haiku the story follows someone who has never found love and as a result getting married is not only a dramatic change to her personal circumstances but also liberates her from a pigeon-hole her friends have placed her in.
Other stories that stick in the mind include the title one, Taking it to Heart, telling the story of a brother and sister who are going to visit their grandmother. Her experiences include the war and seeing some of the terrors and she has imparted this almost obsessional frankness about death. The events of the war still cast a long shadow and as the old woman herself prepares for death it is her legacy of horror stories that lives on particularly strongly in her grand daughter.
Having read through the stories the sense of a strong voice emerges and can be heard in each story through different characters. Desplechin manages to get the balance just right with the length and content with this stories and as an introduction to her writing it leaves you with a strong desire to go on and read Sans Moi, her novel also published by Granta.(less)
This book might perhaps suffer in terms of pace in the first half but once it gets going it moves towards an end which seems to come almost abruptly w...moreThis book might perhaps suffer in terms of pace in the first half but once it gets going it moves towards an end which seems to come almost abruptly when it does arrive.
The main theme of the counterfeiters which comes from the title of the book that the writer Edouard is writing also plays out in real life with a ring of boys being used to palm off counterfeit coins through Paris. But the sense of fraudulent feelings and actions pervades the book. Some characters come across as so prepared to hide behind a facade that you never really get to know them.
But intertwined with the sense of fraud is the theme of coming of age. This is both in the practical sense with Bernard and Olivier leaving school and becoming men but also in the way that even some of the oldest characters are clearly still learning who they are and adapting to circumstances.
The story starts with Bernard discovering that he is illegitimate after he breaks into his mother's bureau and discovers letters not intended to be seen. That idea of damaging secrets that is introduced in that moment remains throughout the book. Grandfather's secretly writing to their grandsons, barristers carrying around letters from their mistress and in the most extreme case a woman, Laura hiding her pregnancy by Olivier's brother Vincent from her husband.
In one sense this is about two families and two particular sons from each family - Bernard and Olivier - charting them as they take their first strides into adulthood. They dream and aspire to great things but have great vulnerability that allows others to help or exploit them. They fall in love easily, bruise easily but by the end of the tale learn that home can often be a comfort rather than a prison.
Throughout the book there are questions about writing that are thrown up as Edouard struggles to get to grips with The Counterfeiters. He faces his arch enemy, the celebrated writer of the moment Comte de Passavant, who seems to treat writing as a hobby and success as a given. The differences between them highlights the danger with feeling too much and not feeling anywhere near enough with Passavant left with an inflated reputation but little in the way of friendship and love.
Gide also uses an Eric Morecambe style voice to the reader revealing that he has struggled to like some of his cast of characters and giving the signpost to the second half of the book. That voice is at first slightly unusual but becomes increasingly familiar and as a device works fairly well.
There were moments when you wondered where this was going but by the end there is a sense that although the counterfeiters don't always get caught they suffer justice in the form of loneliness, guilt and in the case of Vincent the man who left Laura pregnant and fled overseas, it can leave them without much of a sane mind left. (less)
The themes of love and class dominate this tale of a destructive relationship between a couple and a young man they introduce into their circle of fri...moreThe themes of love and class dominate this tale of a destructive relationship between a couple and a young man they introduce into their circle of friends.
What starts as a joke takes a more damaging turn as the D'Orgels take the young Francois into the bosom of their lives and the Count, who has a problem expressing his feelings, fails to notice that his wife Mahaut is falling in love with the young man.
The book details a suffocating a rather futile world of rich people who seek pleasure above all else and find themselves empty in-between looking for the next thrill. As a result they perhaps fail to feel with the same depth that others do not knowing what real love is all about.
Having said that the Countess clearly loves her husband but there are suggestions that it is perhaps because of her background which was on the edge of society. For Count d'Orgel the only thing that really matters is the public life, the way people view him and the balls and dances he attends. When confronted with an awkward moment that requires introspection and deep thought he simply is not capable of it. He can act a reaction but not feel it genuinely.
Just as in the way you felt the world that Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past was largely a hollow one this is the same. The French obsession with aristocracy and position seeps through the pages and you can understand why it was such an interesting subject for numerous writers to cover.
The ball that gives its name to the title marks the point where the unfeeling immaturity of Count d'Orgel reaches its height and leaves you in no doubt that these people are perhaps as damaged as any other but cocooned from reality with their riches and their limited social sphere, which keeps them in a bubble of wealth. (less)
Where Tolstoy is in a league of his own is describing the life of peasants toiling in the hard Russian landscape and writing historical stories set ag...moreWhere Tolstoy is in a league of his own is describing the life of peasants toiling in the hard Russian landscape and writing historical stories set against a landscape of events he describes with great accuracy.
In this collection of three stories, two short and one the length of a novella, his ability to paint a world that is so vivid despite being distant in the past and for me geographically is testament to his writing.
The longest story, Hadji Murat, is set against the background of Russian campaigns to quash local rebellions in the Caucasus. In a battle that sounds oddly familiar the Russian army is fighting against the Chechen rebels and manages to achieve a coup with the defection of Hadji Murat. As the second in command the defection is a useful one. But as Tolstoy reveals, sometimes at a length that is perhaps unwarranted, the political consequences of the defection prevent the Russians ever really using their latest ally usefully. The way that Tolstoy shows both sides of the story with an explanation of why the Chechens have acted with such hostility is fairly well done and one that presumably could have been fairly awkward for a Russian writer to achieve even when it was penned in 1904.
Added to that historical work are two stories that focus more on the idea of self improvement and spirituality. Father Sergius and Master and Man put up two men who are guilty of pride and greed and then details how a humbling of their situation changes their attitude. It was presumably written with the intention of showing other Russians that there was not just a more spiritual path that could be followed but if people put their minds to it change was possible.
As a reading experience this collection works well with the stories flowing well between each other giving the impression they were written in a similar frame of mind at a similar time in Tolstoy's career.(less)
This collection of short stories includes tragedy, humour and an insight into how people lived and survived in a Russia that was hard for both peasant...moreThis collection of short stories includes tragedy, humour and an insight into how people lived and survived in a Russia that was hard for both peasant and aspiring aristocrat alike.
The main story Uncle's Dream was penned by Dostoyevsky after a five-year exile in Siberia and covers the tale of a provincial family desperate to better itself through a marriage of their daughter to a senile prince. The old man is hoodwinked and almost forced into a wedding that is expected to last for a short period before he dies and leaves his fortune to the young girl. There are complications however with the young girl Zina already in love with a teacher who is on his death bed. That relationship is frowned on by her ambitious mother and the only other suitor is disliked by Zina.
The mother tries to manipulate everyone to her own advantage but it all comes crashing down and with great humour the plans to marry the Prince fall apart.
What you are left with is a brilliant insight into the desperation for provincial merchants to better their station in life and the gossip and rivalry that is created by their efforts.
A Meek Girl takes the form of a diary like narrative recounting the story of a pawn broker and his wife. She has just committed suicide and the husband dwells on what happened to their relationship. His ambitions to escape to the country and get away from the poverty he sees everyday in the shop is kept from her and the silence that builds up gets to the point where the damage is irreversible.
Along with those two there is A Weak Heart and White Nights which are a tragic tale of the pressures of working to live and the tale of a loner who over four nights falls for a girl who then moves out of his reach.
As a collection it runs along well, sometimes there can be a jarring between stories, and combines a good mix of tragedy and satire. The themes that Dostoyevsky is famous for are all here with the grinding misery of the clerks in A Weak Heart not being a million miles away from the hardship Raskolnikov finds himself in at the start of Crime and Punishment. Its hard not to think of the muddled and manipulated Prince Gavrila in Uncle's Dream as not that far away from Prince in The Idiot. (less)
A writer heads to St Petersburg in the early 1990s to find a refuge to write about the English countryside but finds a city and a country changing rap...moreA writer heads to St Petersburg in the early 1990s to find a refuge to write about the English countryside but finds a city and a country changing rapidly and so completely absorbing that he spends weeks finding out about Russia and Russians rather than working on his writing.
The world that Fallowell is describing is one that operates to a different beat from the West, a feature that is both exhausting and captivating for a Westener. There is a brutality, frankness and openness that the Russians display that at moments is frightening and at other times rather attractive.
This is a city in transition but still weighed down by its past. That past stretches back over the 300 years of its existence and the Russians seems to be deeply aware of their history.
But they are also keen to move away from the years of dictatorship and embrace the freedoms they were denied for so long to speak their minds, party and make decisions about the lives for themselves.
Fallowell moves through this world brilliantly describing the different characters and the City and how the past casts such a long shadow over the present.
From slightly mad professors, party goers and artists he takes the reader on a journey through the City meeting numerous people working out what change means for them and their world.
But central to the story is the relationship between the author and the Russian sailor Dima. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the book for others but this is a powerful story that leaves you both shocked and deeply moved.
The fate of the young in Russia, as seen through the erratic life of Dima seems to sum up the dangers of a country that has replaced the authority of the state with a mixture of mafia muscle and old KGB bosses sitting in the Kremlin.
This book is a record of a period in Russian history that was exciting, dangerous and highly unpredictable and Fallowell has the ability to have you laughing at the antics of his landlady one minute and holding back the tears as you struggle to come to terms with the brutality of the country in the next. (less)
Christmas time is the perfect moment to choose a story to read that is dripping with yuletide references and a classic battle of good versus evil.
Kay...moreChristmas time is the perfect moment to choose a story to read that is dripping with yuletide references and a classic battle of good versus evil.
Kay Harker is coming home from school for Christmas and bumps into a punch and judy man and a couple of curates on the train and his adventure begins. The old punch and judy man, Cole Hawkins, asks him to do him a favour telling an old woman in the village that the wolves are running and from that moment on the young Kay is drawn into the protection and magic of the box of delights.
Kay is up against Abner Brown and his gang that are based in an old missionary college and choose to dress as clergymen when not running around the countryside as wolves or flying through the air in quiet mysterious airplane cars.
The Box of Delights contains a way into the past and can help the owner go small or fly through the air, both options Kay uses widely as he discovers the plot of Abner Brown and his gang. Brown wants the box for its magic and having kidnapped Hawkins then starts to work back through everyone the old man might have met taking them captive in the cells in the cellar of the old missionary college hoping they will tell him the location of the box.
He never chooses to scrobble Kay because the boy's former governess is Brown's mistress and she informs Abner that the boy was stupid and couldn't possibly have been trusted with such an important object.
Through a series of magic moments in the present, with mice, fairies and rats all emerging from the hidden places, to adventures in the past Kay is brought to a climatic fight with Brown.
Reunited with Hawkins the magic of the box helps them escape but it is plain and simple greed and double crossing that see off Abner.
Despite snow and the capture of the clergy the box comes to the rescue and the Christmas Eve service, the 1000th at Tatchester Cathedral, is saved.
The story is a wonderful Christmas read and the BBC made it into a drama back in 1984 that is still enchanting despite the dated look of the special effects. One thing sticks in my mind, which is why even when he makes his friends small and they meet fairies etc, why do they never talk about it afterwards? Was it all a dream? Perhaps. (less)
The idea of knowing the face and final movements of terrorists is something that has become all too common in the last few years as the video taped fi...moreThe idea of knowing the face and final movements of terrorists is something that has become all too common in the last few years as the video taped final statements are broadcast after the suicide bombers wreak their terrible havoc.
But back in the 1970s terrorism was a faceless secret activity where people planted bombs with out the intention of either taking their own lives or getting caught. It is this type of terrorist, ruthlessly efficient but a career bomber and political assassin, that the Swedish police find themselves trying to defend a visiting US senator against.
Weaving through this story is not just a couple of sub plots, plenty of detail on character and the personal lives of the main protagonists but also plenty of social context. Sjowall and Wahloo don't just write books that contain policemen solving crimes they put those crime fighting efforts in a context that is not always a good one. The Vietnam war is in its final stages and the police have become an armed force of repression against not those that protest against the war but against too many normal citizens.
In this environment Martin Beck has to coordinate attempts to stop the assassination of the deeply unpopular US senator. There are moments in the cat and mouse game with the terrorists where the book is so visual you turn the pages as if watching a film.
The police know the identity of one of the terrorists Richard Heydt and in the end it becomes a personal battle between him and Gunvald Larsson who sets his sights on bringing him to justice.
The sense of failure is always in the air and there are numerous points where your faith in Beck, well established over nine previous books, is seriously tested.
But if there is one thing the couple know how to do it is to deliver a story that kicks into a higher gear as it reaches the final third and the pace is evident again here.
Putting this alongside all the other Beck novels it has to be considered one of the better ones. But you could never come to this without knowing about the past laid down in the previous books. Neither is it possible to get top the end of this 10 book series without a deep appreciation and respect for the husband and wife team that wrote them. Reading them has been one of my best reading discoveries of recent years. (less)
Rather than scared the feeling on competition of this story was one of sadness. Mysteries of the past have the ability to emerge into the present and...moreRather than scared the feeling on competition of this story was one of sadness. Mysteries of the past have the ability to emerge into the present and do great harm to those that thought they had left the past far behind them.
Having introduced the idea of a decrepit house and a ghostly presence of a child in just the few pages the story of the house and the small hand then unfold over the rest of the story.
The main character, rare book dealer Adam Snow, stumbles on the White House and its over grown and falling down house and garden on his way back to London from an appointment in Sussex. To get to the house he has to push past the brambles and the old gateway where visitors would have paid to visit the garden and in that quiet and chilly setting a small hand seems to enter his own. The presence of a child, a ghostly hand, that Adam feels as if it were real.
He then has to discover if he is going mad or whether or not the small hand is destined to haunt him for a long time. A well crafted story of hidden events of the past starts to unravel slowly and Adam suffers a few more spine chilling encounters before the truth is discovered.
Unlike the Woman in Black you don't read this frightened to turn the page but rather hurry along wanting to find out how the story unfolds. It is disturbing and the question of ghosts is one that both the character and the reader would have to think about. Do you believe in them? That question dominates Adam and starts to nag at the back of your own mind.
As a yuletide ghost story to be read against a backdrop of cold dark nights it's the choice of the moment and while it won't have you frightened to close your eyes it delivers a slower scare leaving darker thoughts lurking in your mind. (less)
How do you make a reader willingly and avidly read on about the lives of four house mates who are dragging themselves deeper into the dark depths of d...moreHow do you make a reader willingly and avidly read on about the lives of four house mates who are dragging themselves deeper into the dark depths of drug addiction? How do you make the reader care about these people and their black world even when described in all its horrific detail? Good writing with a solid voice and a cracking pace is the simple answer.
Cody James clearly knows what she is writing about and can portray the world of the falling apart without coming down on either side of the fence. She can tell you about Adam and his friends in graphic detail with humour and pain, but it is up to you to decide how you feel about them.
And feel about them you do. Adam, the main character, is heading for death and doing a very good line in self destruction. His friends Sean, Lincoln and Xavi are all gripped by the same addictions and sense of desperation. They each show it differently with Lincoln putting his hopes into a relationship that seems to have only remote prospects of lasting. Sean swings through bisexuality looking for satisfaction and Xavi trys to control his environment to bring some sort of sense of calm.
As Adam falls apart and takes his failings out on his friends and women he is involved with it would be easy to be turned off and hate the guy. But there is a part of you, perhaps all of us, that refuses to turn away until the light has completely gone out. You want to believe that Adam will sort himself out and recover some stability.
A few years ago now I stayed up late one night and watched a film with a young Michael Hutchence taking one of the main roles. Dogs in Space was the title, if I remember rightly, and it centered on a collection of misfits sharing a house and trying to find happiness. But excess and tragedy mar the group and it is a movie with a lot of self reflection and growing up in its tale. Had expected this to perhaps go in the same direction but liked the way James left the characters open to your interpretation.
Ultimately Adam and company could go either way. That is perhaps the greatest irony of drug addiction as so well portrayed by James that even until the end there is a chance of pulling out of the nosedive. Would Adam have done it? You would like to think so but this story pulls no punches and so you are well prepared to accept that he wouldn't. (less)
Life is full of questions and answers and each child goes through their why? period before learning that asking about things all the times causes both...moreLife is full of questions and answers and each child goes through their why? period before learning that asking about things all the times causes both annoyance and frustration because the answers are usually far from satisfactory.
Imagine reading a book that from start to finish a series of questions. It might sound difficult reading, and in parts it is, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. One of the problems is the urge to mentally answer as many questions as you can and the other is to try, even though it's clear one isn't coming, to look out for a traditional narrative structure.
At the end you realise that of course life is a series of questions and a search for answers, for some sort of truth, and that those that ask with the sort of random determination of the voice in this book do so at risk of alienating themselves from friends caught in the questioning crossfire.
The questions ebb and flow and there is something almost symphonic about the way that certain themes recur through the reading. Questions about blue jays, poodles and haircuts crop up in different ways throughout the book.
There is also a sense of asking the reader to think about their perceptions of a novel. The question really is what is a novel? and although this comes hardbound at 164 pages looking like a novel is it one? Is this literature as art? Is this literature as a construction? The questions don't stop at page 164.
As an exercise reading something different this reminds you that the narrative forms you take for granted are there to be challenged and in a way this succeeds where Tom McCarthy's C failed to be an anti-novel. It might not be comfortable but it will make you laugh in places but more than anything it will make you think and that has to be a good thing. (less)