Saturday, April 5, 2014

Seana reviews Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

Here's most of the review that I put up over on Escape Into Life yesterday. I also put in a little link to this site, so that others interested in the Europa Challenge can join in. 
 

Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored (L’été tous les chats s’ennuient), by Philippe Georget

English edition translated by Steven Rendall

Editions Jigal, 2009, Europa Editions, 2013
Reviewed by Seana Graham
A book with the word “summertime” in the title may seem cruel to mention to those of you still struggling with winter, or at least a cold, wet spring, but really, what better time to get away to the hot coast of the Mediterranean than at just the moment when it seems that summer will never come?
Philippe Georget’s prizewinning police procedural opens up at a little beach campground on the French Mediterranean, not too far from the border with Spain. Of course, as this genre would be nothing without a crime, a body will turn up shortly.

After this brief prologue, we find ourselves in the regional capital city of Perpignan, in the company of the man who will be our companion throughout our journey, Inspector Gilles Sebag. As his story opens, he is not thinking much about crime. He is, brooding about the summer ahead.  We soon learn that Gilles, though able, has not risen as far through the ranks as by all accounts he should have. This is because of a decision he made in the now quickly receding past. What could this dark shadow be? It turns out that when his children were born, he opted to spend more time with his family than in pursuing his career. To make matters worse, this period is drawing to a close, as all his family members seem to want to be anywhere but home. Sebag’s ongoing concern about what has become of family life makes him a rather unique detective, at least in my reading experience.

Meanwhile, several young Dutch women visiting the region have come in harm’s way, and at least one of these has been murdered. Much of the book will be occupied with how the strands of their lives are woven together—and by whom. It’s a very twisty sort of tale, more successful I think in some aspects than others, but very enjoyable for all that. One of the author’s stated aims was to convey something of the flavor of this region of French Catalonia or Roussillon, as Georget frequently refers to it, and in this I think he has succeeded. Before he was a novelist, Georget was a newsman, and like several of his characters, he is a transplant to the region, and eager to soak up the local culture. We learn about many of the aspects of the area, such as the lore around Canigou, a mountain of almost sacred importance to the Catalan people.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Marie C. Reviews The Palestinian Lover by Selim Nassib

The Palestinian Lover, by Selim Nassib. Published 2007 by Europa Editions.

The Palestinian Lover is a book that keeps me thinking about it long after I closed the final pages. First, there's that title. To what, or whom, does it refer? The book is about a fictional love affair between Golda Meir and an Arab businessman named Albert Pharaon. So maybe it refers to Albert, Golda's Palestinian lover. Or maybe it refers to Golda; the French title is L'Amante Palestinese, amante being the feminine form of the word, and another English translator chose A Lover in Palestine as the title.

Certainly the book is about a woman who loves the land called Palestine, who has come from Europe and America to make a new home there, and for whom a man like Albert represents both the ultimate forbidden fruit and the single thing from which she cannot turn. There's a second woman, too, a Palestinian woman with whom Albert has a relationship after his affair with Golda ends. The book covers time from the early 1930s through 1948 and ranges from a kibbutz to the city but rests largely in the minds of its characters.

Certainly identity and it malleability, the way we put it on like clothes and wear it into the world, is a central theme of the book. Other themes include individual versus group identity, adherence to convention and the power of passion to challenge our ideas about ourselves. The Palestinian Lover also figures as an example of Europa Editions' mission to bring important Arabic literature to Europe and America. Unfortunately it's out of print now but I hope that readers interested in the Middle East and Israel will keep an eye out for this fascinating and important novel.

It's my third for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Marie C. reviews In the Orchard, The Swallows, by Peter Hobbs

In the Orchard, The Swallows, by Peter Hobbs. Published 2014 by Europa Editions.

In the Orchard, The Swallows, is a slim, lyrical book that can be read in a sitting or two, about a young man released from a Pakistani prison after more than a decade. Now, the boy he was gone, and the man he could have been ceased to exist, he must figure out who he is and how he will survive, not just day to day but how to make a life when everything about himself has been shattered, reformed and remade.

Peter Hobbs writes the book as a series of letters to Saba, the girl he knew and the inadvertent cause of his imprisonment. The two were infatuated with each other as teens though separated by custom and class. Her father has the boy arrested and sent away, and the boy stays in prison for years, becoming a man. Then one day, just like that, he's released and dumped by the side of the road. He makes his way back home and a kindly neighbor takes him in and takes care of him, until he's ready to begin taking care of himself.

He has a long way to go, and Hobbs makes no bones about the abuse he's suffered and the difficulty of his recovery in both physical and psychological terms. But there's hope, and there's a future, even if he doesn't quite know what that future will hold. I would recommend In the Orchard for readers of Atiq Rahimi and Khaled Hosseini. It's a little gem.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Seana reviews A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 2013

My first entry for the Europa Challenge Blog, 2014! Last year I was overly ambitious and bombed spectacularly at getting many Europa titles read, this year I am going for "underly" ambitious, which may work better.


Although I had the Europa Challenge blog in mind as an incentive, I actually didn't come across this title through the usual Europa channels. I was listening to an NPR show that featured Nancy Pearl of Book Lust fame, because I'd been alerted to the fact that one of my favorite authors had been chosen off her bookshelf for her Picks from the Past feature. That book was The Cold Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty, but I then stayed tune to hear what else she might have selected. A Long Way From Verona was the next selection.


I've heard Jane Gardam praised in many quarters, and in fact she seems to be a Europa favorite, as many of her titles are in print here in the U.S. in their editions, but for some reason, I'd been a bit scared off by her. I think I had the impression that these books would be odd in a British sort of way that I can find off-putting. Don't ask me why. At any rate, Nancy Pearl's mini review of this book didn't sound like that, so I thought, why not give it a go?


Although I didn't learn this till after reading it, A Long Way From Verona seems to have been marketed in England, where it first came out in 1971, (reissued in the U.S. by Europa in 2013) as a middle school or young adult novel. The protagonist and narrator is thirteen as she recounts her tale, and twelve  when the story opens. That said, it didn't really occur to me that it wasn't conceived as an adult novel--there is definitely no "writing down" about it.


Jessica Vye tells us that she is not quite normal, partly due to a traumatic experience she had when she was nine. This incident bestows upon her the mantle of "writer" at an early age, which she seems to find rather appalling. She doesn't seem to find the fact that she is living her young adulthood in the greater trauma of World War Two traumatic at all in comparison, though the area she lives in on the English coast is subject to bombing raids and children carry their gas masks along with them as a matter of course. (It strikes me now that there are some similarities between Nancy Pearl's first pick, The Cold Cold Ground and this book, as the former tells of being a policeman in Belfast during the peak of the Troubles, when the police checked under their cars for bombs every morning in a similar routine way.)


A Long Way From Verona could well be titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl". Jessica's family are newcomers to Cleveland Sands, as her father has rather belatedly decided to become a minister, and her mother is adapting to this role the best she can, which from Jessica's viewpoint is not very well. As Jessica says, she herself is not very popular, but she does at least have a few stalwart friends, though many of her adventures seem to take her off by herself. Although this is in many ways a funny book, there is a very clear portrait of the way a writer may be slightly at odds with the world as it is at all times, and even from a young age. No one does really quite understand her, although she is lucky in finding one Miss Philemon early on, who proves an ally. There is a very precise understanding in the book of how experience works itself through a young person inarticulately, and comes out somewhere unexpected, baffling not just the people around them, but even that person herself.


I look forward to reading more Jane Gardam and seeing how her "adult" novels compare.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Marie C. reviews Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy

Saving Mozart, by Raphael Jerusalmy. Published 2013 by Europa Editions.

Saving Mozart is a short, epistolary novel made up of the journals and letters of Otto Steiner, an elderly music critic slowing dying of tuberculosis in a nursing home in Germany between 1939 and 1940. He is a non-practicing Jew and lives in constant anxiety of being found out, but he has a lot of other problems besides that, including deteriorating finances, worsening living conditions, the death of friends and crumbling health. The only thing that keeps him going is music- his records and phonograph, his memories of music and his ability to participate in public musical life.

His friend Hans is his link to the outside world, and when the book opens Steiner is still able to attend concerts and publish articles but over time he becomes more and more isolated. His isolation is reflected conversely in his living conditions; as he becomes more cut off financially and socially from the outside world he transitions from a bed in a single room to one in a shared ward. Introverts like Steiner can be alone in a room full of people and most fully connected to themselves when by themselves.

Above all though Steiner loves music and the music of Mozart most of all. So he is naturally very upset to learn that Mozart's music will be featured at an annual concert that will also function as a propaganda opportunity for the Nazis whom Steiner detests. And so he comes up with a way to make a very public statement at this event, a statement which may go undetected by the very people it was meant to show up, but not by all.

Saving Mozart is a quick read about a topic familiar to many readers but it is an original take on the subject at the same time. I enjoyed the suspense as events lead up to the concert, and the suspense over the changes in Otto's life and fate. It is a moving testimony to an act of rebellion and the refusal of one person to be cowed by or submit to cruelty and horror. Jerusalmy keeps us tottering on a precipice. We know what could happen, what is happening in the background. The musicians play not as Rome burns but as people do.

Rating: BACKLIST

This is my first book for the 2014 Europa Challenge. I received the book for review from Europa Editions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Trish R. reviews MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrrante

My Brilliant Friend Lila and Elena, two childhood friends in a neighborhood of 1950s Naples, both wear the moniker “my brilliant friend,” but there is no question which of the two Ferrante meant. Elena continues her schooling through high school in this first installment of the trilogy of novels Ferrante has written about the two, while Lila, incandescent Lila, is held back from further schooling by her family claiming they cannot afford it. We ache for her.

Ferrante captures the uncertainty and confusion of youth through the voice and perspective of Elena. But what we really want is what everyone wants—the thoughts and voice of Lila. We can’t get enough of her, even when we only see her from a distance. We long to know what she thinks. We know, just like Elena does, that Elena is only a conduit, pretty and clever, but a poor substitute for the real thing. If we could only get to Lila, all will become clear. Lila radiates something like unfiltered truth, understanding, knowledge. Her opinions are the ones that matter. But even then, we wonder if we would be accepted into her inner circle. Elena is our conduit.

Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels feel especially real when describing the resentments and jockeying for influence among the boys seeking favors of Elena and Lila, and the confusions these two radiate when considering the options left open to them in a culture not known to value contributions from the female sex beyond housekeeping and baby-making. We yearn to know, too, the thoughts and desires of the parents of Lila and Elena—to know if they are being fairly portrayed by Elena or if there is something more going on which she does not have the understanding yet to relate.

By the end of this, Book I of L’amica genial, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we are on the edge of something unknown, that life will play out for these two much like it does for us: we grasp in the dark for something we cannot see, and hope that it will bring what we imagine, not knowing if the direction is the right one. This marvelous recreation of two lives in a poor neighborhood of Naples a long time ago draws us in completely and involves in in a way that only great literature can.


See all my reviews at The Bowed Bookshelf.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2014 Challenge!

I didn't make my personal goal of 24 Europas this year but I'm signing up for next year!

To our new readers: if you're interested in joining the Challenge and have questions, please feel free to email me at europachallenge@gmail.com.

I hope you'll join me and I look forward to all your posts in the New Year.