A Late Beginner

desiccation cracks

I recently treated myself by ordering three of Slightly Foxed’s paperback memoirs as my first book order for the year.  Two of them, Frances Wood’s Hand-grenade Practice in Peking and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love are still in my TBR-pile, but I just finished the third one, Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner.

In A Late Beginner Priscilla Napier looks back on her childhood in Egypt during the early 20th century. We follow her from a very young age and until she leaves Egypt in 1921, aged twelve, to go to school in the UK. The first world war and the early steps toward Egypt independence occur in the fringes of her consciousness, mingled with all the normal interests of a young child. Although largely written from a child’s perspective, Napier still manages to give a lively image of the Egypt she knew.

I really like memoirs that place you in the middle of important historical events. Of course the format is a limitation in that you only get one, usually not very objective, perspective on events, but what you gain is the impressions and feelings of someone who was actually there. It is the closest thing I know to time-travel. This one was a really good example.

Advertisements

Focus on the indies – Slightly Foxed

DSC_0621.JPG

I like it when publishers have a recognizable style, when you know that if you’ve tried and liked some of their books, you will probably like most of them. Slightly Foxed is one of those publishers. They publish carefully selected memoirs in beautiful editions and, out of the four I have read so far, three have been great. They also have a good literary magazine which I subscribe to.

One of their books, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a classic for those of us who love reading books about books. It contains the unexpectedly funny and moving correspondence between an American writer and an antiquarian book seller in London between 1949 and 1969. Also included in this edition is “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” which acts like a sequel. It has been printed multiple times so it should be possible to find cheaper copies but I like my bright read edition.

I was a stranger by John Hackett is probably the quietest WW2 book I’ve read. It starts reasonably dramatically with Hackett getting seriously wounded at Arnhem in 1944, but from thereon most of the book describes his quiet time in hiding, waiting to recover sufficiently to attempt a return to Allied-controlled areas. What really struck me in this memoir was his admiration and gratitude for the civilians who risked their lives hiding him. It is a great portrait of civilian life in the occupied Netherlands, of the Dutch resistance, and of quiet civilian courage during occupation.

Country boy by Richard Hillyer is another great read. It is a description of a rural English village before the first world war, a memoir of the author’s childhood in a poor farm labourer’s family and a moving portrayal of his thirst for reading and learning.

So far the only Slightly Foxed edition I have been disappointed in was The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham which I found a bit boring. It was well-written but as I had no relation to the fictional Mrs Miniver I could not muster enough interest in the true person behind.

Based on the four books I have read from them so far I would say that that Slightly Foxed is a reliable quality publisher. All the memoirs have been very well-written and they are beautifully produced. The texts themselves feel more conservative than daring but are generally interesting. They also feel very British.

About this series: One of the things I really appreciated when I started reading book blogs was the introduction to interesting small publishers I never would have discovered otherwise. I find it only fair that I should return the favour and present some of my own favourites. I plan to post these post ones in awhile whenever I have a publisher I want to recommend. These are not sponsored posts and include no affiliate links. Previously featured: Peirene Press.

 

A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

Focus on the indies – Peirene Press

DSC_0050

Since I started reading book blogs more regularly I have been introduced to a number of interesting independent publishers. I now thought I should do my part and spread the word further, starting with my new favourite, Peirene Press.

Peirene Press focuses on short-format, maximum 200 pages, translated novels and memoirs by mostly European authors. As I prefer shorter novels and aim to read from as many countries as possible, they have been a perfect match. It doesn’t hurt that they are producing reasonably well-made and attractive soft-covers either.

Books I recommend from Peirene Press

I have enjoyed and would recommend all four books I have read from Peirene. However, I will focus on two of them, both dealing with life in the Soviet Union. The fact that I have a more relevant photo to illustrate these books than I do for the other two may or may not have influenced my choice…

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translation by Margita Gailitis)

Soviet Milk is a Latvian novel following a mother and daughter whose relationship has been stunted by the mother’s depression. The novel is a beautiful portrait of their fragile relationship but also a broader commentary about the influence of oppressive regimes on ordinary lives.

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (translation by Delija Valiukenas)

If the previous novel didn’t sound bleak enough I can instead recommend the Lithuanian novel Shadows on the Tundra. It is a well-written memoir which follows then 14-year old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė and her mother and brother during their deportation to the Lena delta in north Siberia. It is a truly horrifying account of the complete disregard for human lives that these deportations involved, but it also a survival story and as such not entirely without hope.

Other books from Peirene Press

From Peirene I have also read and very much enjoyed Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda and Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall. Under the Tripoli Sky, describes a childhood in Tripoli during the 1960s and would be my recommendation if you want to try Peirene Press but want to avoid the heavier themes in some of their other novels.

Have you read any of these books, did you like them? Do you have any recommendations of other books I should read from Peirene Press or suggestions on other indie publishers I should try?

As usual this post has not been sponsored in any way.

 

Reading books by authors from 30 countries

World map

Read books since I started the reading challenge in January 2017.

I did it! I have read books by authors from 30 nations (if I include Sápmi which I do). Not in a year which was the original challenge but in a bit under 1.5 years. I struggled a bit in the beginning but gradually I got better at finding great books from countries I normally don’t read from and I became braver in my reading choices.

What have I learnt?

In the beginning I was a bit too ambitious in my reading choices which slowed down my progress. If my goal had been to read one book per country and never return it would have made sense to make that one book really count. However, that’s not what I was trying to do. Instead I was gradually expanding my reading comfort zone and for that it helped to keep it simple. Often the cultural context of a novel was unfamiliar and it made more sense to select books that was not too demanding in other ways. I therefore dropped any ambition that the books I selected had to be particularly literary and I preferentially opted for shorter novels. Along the way I also got better at finding great literature in translation, identified a few interesting indie publishers and found many excellent international bloggers .

Good sources of literature in translation

And other stories publishes an eclectic collection of mostly translated fiction. Among them The Lime Tree by César Aira (which I liked) and The Seamstress and the Wind by the same author (which I found too weird).

Ayebia specialises in literature by African and Carribean authors. I’m currently enjoying their anthology African Love Stories (edited by Ama Ata Aidoo). Thank you Darkowaa for the review that introduced me to it!

My favourite discovery in translated fiction has been Peirene Press which publishes translated fiction by mostly European authors. I would have preferred a wider reach but Peirene Press has some other advantages that makes up for it. Most importantly all the books I have read from them (3) have been excellent. They also only publish shorter works (maximum about 200 pages) which makes me much more willing to risk trying a new author. And I like the look of their books…

A few relevant blog posts I found along the way

Beginner’s guide to Baltic Literature by Agnese

Ann Morgan’s list of books from her blog “A year of reading the world”

Darkowaa’s list of Ghanaian authors and their books (3 part series, links to the two first parts can be found at the end of her post).

Stuart at Winstondad’s Blog have also reviewed a wide range of translated fiction (sorted by country).

I would like to add more links here, please let me know if you have recommendations of similar resources from other regions (excluding literature from the UK and the US which is easy to find anyway).

What’s next?

I won’t start another reading challenge rightaway but I will keep tracking author’s country or origin for my reading. Hopefully it will show that I keep exploring new reading grounds. Next year I consider once more trying to limit my book buying but to give myself a free pass for books from countries I normally don’t read from to encourage more diverse reading choices.

 

 

The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya

 

Photo of wild flowers by a river

I have been lucky with my reading lately. March was a slow reading month for me but since Easter I have had much more reading time and my last few reads have also all been really good. During April I have moved from WW2 France with Flight to Arras (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) to Latvia during Soviet time with Soviet Milk (Nora Ikstena) and now, latest, to 19th century Russia with The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (translation Karen Rosneck).

I discovered The Boarding-School Girl when I, unsuccessfully, looked for other translated works by one of her sister, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, the writer of City Folk and Country Folk. The Boarding-School Girl is largely focused on the disillusioned and exiled Veretitsyn and his largely accidental influence on his young neighbour Lolenka. Exposed to Veretitsyn’s bitter musings Lolenka starts to question the shallow education she is getting and the confined life she is living. Partly a comedy of manner, partly a coming-of-age story the novel gives an interesting glimpse into the life and education of 19th century women from the lower gentry.

It is a very short novel, the actual story took only 137 pages in the edition I was reading, and the plot was relatively simple. The character’s on the other hand were well-developed and realistic. A sharp but subtle wit runs through the novel, it may even have a bit more edge than her sister’s novel. If you enjoy Jane Austen writing style you would probably like this one too although the stories told are very different.

Overall it had a surprisingly modern feel, also compared to City Folk and Country Folk. The edition I was reading also included an extensive introduction and a generous number of footnotes which helped me appreciate the novel even more.

I count The Boarding-School Girl as my Classic in translation for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

Spending time on the Russian countryside

Rural Russian orthodox church

The best thing about reading book blogs are all the great books you get exposed to. I could still have been completely oblivious to the existence of the excellent novel City folk and country folk if it weren’t for Kaggsy’s blog post about it and now when I’ve read it I just want to spread the word further.

City folk and country folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (translation by Nora Seligman Favorov) is a comedy of manner with sharp observations and wit not dissimilar to a Jane Austen novel. Of course comparing it to a Jane Austen novel sets the bar impossibly high, it is very good but it doesn’t have the tight writing of an Austen novel. What it offers instead is insight into the lives of Russian rural gentry, observations on the social changes that occurred in Russia during the 1860s and a plot which I wasn’t sure where it would take me. It was a perfect novel to ease myself back into my classics reading again. Unfortunately this novel seems to be the only text from the author that has been translated into English but one of her sisters, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, has a translated novel, The Boarding-School Girl, which I now long to read.

You should read this novel if you

  • want to read a 19th century Russian classics but want to avoid the thicker or more tragic novels,
  • love Jane Austen’s novels (just don’t expect it to actually be a Jane Austen novel), or
  • if you just like the thought of reading a little known but excellent Russian 19th century author.

(Personally I’m guilty of all three)

I found some interesting and more in-depth reviews of this book here, here and here, although they, especially the two later, do give out a bit of the plot so if you want to avoid that they may be best read after the novel.

I’m counting this one as my 19th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge. There’s still time, until March 1st, to sign up to this challenge if you are interested.