Monthly Archives: December 2013

There’s an Egg in my Soup

By Tom Galvin

Queues for groceries, unfathomable bus timetables, inexplicable traditions and truly bizarre soup – this is Poland in the mid-1990s, where Tom Galvin innocently went as a trainee teacher. Without a word of Polish, he is plunged into a strange and rapidly changing culture, as the country shakes off its troubled and complex past and faces the challenges of being a part of modern Europe. He spent five years dealing with long and freezing winters, lack of good food, loneliness and hardship, as he discovered the misery as well as the joy of Polish life, even meeting and marrying his wife!

O’Brien synopsis

I do have three other books that I’ve read between ‘the Quiet Man’ and this one but I thought I’d probably get this one written up more quickly. This was a very quick and easy read. It’s never going to be listed as a ‘great’ of travel literature, or whatever that genre is where a person moves to a new place and tries to figure it all out. It feels a little bit as if nobody read it between first draft and publishing (so a bit like this blog then…) It’s often written as if being spoken, which I know I do here too, but it feels wrong somehow and kind of irritated me (and I suppose I have that effect too, so maybe should just stop criticizing).

Leaving all that aside, I was the perfect audience for this book;  reading it brought back fond memories of my time in Belarus Yes, this is another example of a book set in Eastern Europe. I bought this a few years ago as a present for my mam or dad, I can’t even remember which anymore and I’m sure neither of them read it. I do have a bad habit of that, buying books as presents for others when I want to read them myself. I used this loophole over Christmas. I’m sure some of the beneficiaries will end up reading this eventually. I apologise, but really – you knew it already!

Here I was going to list out the presents bought and received, but this post is one of the longer ones so I’ll include in the post for one of those other three books.

When I first saw this book however many years ago I knew before reading the undertitle that it was set in Poland. I’d gatecrashed part of my friend’s interrailing adventure back in 2006 and visited Krakow and Zakopane. On our arrival in Zakopane, we wandered up to the town, passed a man walking down the street with a lamb wrapped around his neck and ate zurek, the soup with the egg in it. I loved it and wanted to make it myself, but when I read the recipes and discovered that you had to leave something fermenting for a few days I dismissed the idea.

As it happens, the town where Tom Galvin taught English was called Minsk. I also taught English in Minsk, but it was Minsk, capital of Belarus, not Mińsk Mazowiecki, in Eastern Poland.

I could easily turn this post into a memoir of my time in Minsk (only one year to Tom’s five) but I’m going to try and keep it snappy and point out some of the times when I went ‘I totally get that!’ though bear in mind I went to Minsk 9 years later than when Tom first arrived in Poland. 2003, a whole 10 years ago!

He does his best to convince me that I have made a big mistake.’ I had a friend in Belarus from age 14. She came over to Ireland as a Chernobyl child. We became penpals. We wrote letters, sometimes more frequently than others. We went to university. We continued writing letters. She was over in Ireland as a translator that summer and I told her I planned to leave my job to teach English. ‘But…you have a good job!’ A few months later I had to dig around to find a phone number and tell her I was coming o Minsk. ‘Are you sure? I don’t know if you will like it here’. My mind was made up though and we finally made the switch to email in the weeks before I arrived.

The Grocery store. The ‘produkti’ stores with the counters. I hated those shops where you had to go and queue at each counter, ask for each thing separately, go to the cashier and pay, then return to and pick up your goods. These are a nightmare for those who don’t have a great command of the language. When I was in Minsk there were two ‘supermarkets’ where I knew I was safe, could pick up most things myself and keep the pointing and miming to a minimum. The last time I was there was in 2011. I could not believe the size of the European supermarket I visited.

Teaching articles to students who have no concept of the idea. ‘Cat walks down street’ indeed! Also, while learning Russian I thought, this is great. I don’t have to suffer through the equivalent of the German ‘der, die, das, des, dem etc.’ but believe me, Russian makes up for this in many ways. Word endings. I’ll say no more.

The corridor that only a few weeks ago had reminded me of “The Shining”’. This must me a common comparison across Eastern Europe, but I also had that shivery feeling in Poland. That time in Zakopane – it was after dark when we arrived. It was a last minute change of plans so nothing was booked. In that pre smart phone era I’d simply texted my sister and asked her to send me some names. We ended up paying €4 each to stay in some army barrack style hostel that we compared to The Shining. I’m sure the hostels in Zakopane now probably all have bright colours and young Australian workers.

‘For some reason you were only ever given a fork’. I’d totally forgotten that. I rarely cooked in Minsk, stocked up with cheese, kolbasa and bread at home and ate at the school canteens for a euro or so. Knives were not very commonplace.

Feeling like a fraud. I studied Business and German at university. My TEFL training took place over 4 weekends at a school in Dublin. I’m not sure if it even exists any more. Apparently somebody else going for the job had 5 years’ experience. I got it because of my certificate. Oh, and apparently also because I sent a photo with my CV and I was all happy and smiley. On such snap decisions our lives are changed.

Weight loss: Well I don’t think I ate less, but I lost two stone over the course of the year. One colleague claimed it was because the food was not as processed as at home. She had been to Cork for a month and had put on a stone. No diet has ever worked so well for me as a trip to Belarus.

In 2003 only 66 of the country’s 3,300 red meat plants were passed and given permits to export their produce within the rest of Europe.’ Ummm, horsemeat anybody? Also I don’t think steak tatar is common in Belarus, at least I didn’t come across it. When we told our neighbour that we were planning on going to Ethiopia for our honeymoon he almost gleefully commented ‘better watch out for the tapeworm in the raw meat!’ Ugh, I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t like turning down food just because it’s not something I’d normally eat, but I was glad when nobody offered us their raw meat speciality.

My hair freezes on the way to school.’ Yup, if you don’t blowdry your hair make sure you have a good hat!

‘Each date necessitates a flower for the girl.’ I have never been given as many flowers as I got when I was in Belarus. Flowers for every occasion and none. I loved it! I try to drop hints to my husband, but I guess flower buying is not the norm for Irish guys unless it’s Valentine’s Day or they’ve done something wrong.

‘Nobody travels to Bielorussia. There is nothing to see there.’ I won’t even dignify this with a comment.

The hospitality of strangers. I did find the Belarusians to be among the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. It is something they are proud of and I hope something that they don’t lose. I always find it strange how many people find Eastern Europeans cold and unfriendly. Maybe when you first meet them…and of course not everybody is the same, but us Irish can sometimes be friendly and hospitable on the surface but we don’t go out of our way. Oh that sounds really bad too, but basically I always get the impression that an invitation is never given halfheartedly, the way it sometimes is in our case.

Videos in English….ah the Saturday (or was it Sunday….my memory is failing me) markets in Minsk with the pirate videos including a small selection in English. Amazingly I bought ‘Intermission’ there.

Ryszard Kapuscinski – I really like what I’ve read of his and need to dig out ‘The Emperor’. I have to say though, while I always like to read books written by authors of countries I’ve visited I don’t think I’ve actually read any Belarusian books. People! Give me some ideas!

The British Council Library. There wasn’t a British Council in Minsk, but there had been and their library was still there. It saw a lot of me; it was a great refuge, really a lifesaver.

‘Premature band of gold’. On my first day in class the students asked me how old I was. When they found out that I was 23 the very next question was ‘are you married?’ So many people did get married (at least for the first time) at a very young age. My 21 year old friend told me that people thought she was odd because she wasn’t married. She eventually married an Irishman at the grand old age of 26. It does seem to be changing though.

I could go on, there are so many things that I remembered while reading this book and it was like a trip down memory lane. In case it isn’t clear, I loved my year in Belarus. It changed my life.

 

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The Quiet Man

by Maurice Walsh

In the 1930s, Irish novelist Maurice Walsh placed the moors and mountains of Ireland firmly on the literary map with this celebrated collection of stories. Since then, readers have continued to be charmed by these accounts of the simple and common activities of the characters in 1920s rural Ireland. The lives of Hugh Forbes, Paddy Bawn Enright, Archibald MacDonald, Joan Hyland, and Nuala Kierley intermingle as the themes of nationalism, human dignity, honor, and love are given full play. Made famous by John Ford’s Oscar-winning film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, these remain humorous and poignant tales set against a backdrop of intrigue and Irish civil unrest.

Appletree Press description.

It’s now time to dip into the true ‘unread bookshelf’. It’s funny how writing a blog affects your reading habits. I was looking at the options presented to me and thought ‘No, no, no, you can’t choose yet another book set in central or Eastern Europe. Das Volk will not appreciate it’. So I looked and looked and settled upon ‘The Quiet Man’.

Yes, you’ve all heard of the film and I imagine in this day and age that could put off more people than it would encourage. The book I am reading was published in 1964 and has the tagline ‘The Book of the Film’. Nowadays these are usually hastily written movie tie-ins. I once fell for that when I bought the book of ‘A Walk in the Clouds’. Yes, it is a cheesy Keanu Reeves film, but I liked it. When I googled it I came across the book and ordered it. Lo and behold it was a ‘book of the film’ written after the fact and mirroring every scene exactly. This book, however, was originally published in 1935, long before the film.

I thought I could wax lyrical about how this was on my grandparents’ shelf in Mount Prospect Avenue. There were some books I read when visiting my grandparents as a young girl. I remember sneakily reading a few chapters of ‘Light a Penny Candle’ by Maeve Binchy, even though my mother felt it was too grown up for me. After my grandfather went to hospital and I stayed every now and again with my grandmother I used to always choose something. Inevitably it would be some potboiler from years before. I like reading these old popular books. You don’t find them in bookshops, because they are not classics, but they sold at the time and were popular for a reason.

After my grandparents died I took some of their books (and some I had ‘borrowed’ through the years became mine by default.) One of the books was a ‘teach yourself Russian’ type book from the 60s. I hadn’t known that my grandfather had been in interested in learning Russian. My own interest stemmed partly from work trips my father made to Russia just before the end of the Soviet Union and later trips to Ukraine and Lithuania. The Russian dictionary I’d bought him once as a present got put to firm use when I went to Belarus. It was only when I returned for Christmas that my grandfather said a phrase to me in Russian….what was it…something simple, perhaps ‘kak dela?’ and I learned that these were the remnants of his self taught Russian in the 60s. It was the height of the cold war. In hindsight we look back and know the aftermath, but at the time my grandfather thought it might at some stage be a useful language. It was one of those silly but heart-warming facts. My grandfather, my father and myself, we had all attempted to learn Russian in our own way and for different reasons.

And there I go, taking over this post with Russia even though the subject is a most un- ‘Eastern European’ of books. Anyway, it’s all a lie. This didn’t come from my grandparents’ bookshelf. I had all of these warm fuzzy feelings to share and then I opened the cover and saw ‘€4’ written in pencil. So I must have picked it up second hand somewhere. Most likely the Temple Bar market. €4seems quite expensive for a book like this second hand, a book that cost a fraction of the price originally and probably came from somebody’s grandparents’ shelf. But on the other hand, I like the Temple Bar second hand market and the random books you find there so maybe buying this is my contribution to keeping it going.

The amount I have not written about this book, you would think I was trying to avoid writing about it. On the contrary, I had written most of the above while I was still in the early stages of reading.

‘The Quiet Man’ was originally published as ‘Green Rushes’, an interwoven selection of short stories told in chronological order. The Prologue sets the stage and summarises some of the events in advance, without telling too much. I approached this book with trepidation and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed each of the stories and rooted for the characters. The book is very much of its time. I don’t think it would be possible for anybody these days to write in the same style or language used by this author. If they did it would really irritate me and I would feel that it was being schlepped on. Perhaps in that era this was also the case, but that is not how I read it. It really makes me sad that Hiberno-English is disappearing. Yes, in Ireland we speak with (to some) impenetrable accents and we have plenty of sayings that are unique to this country, but many of them are dying out. We all watch US and UK TV and increases globalisation means that patterns of speech are becoming homogenous. Some turns of phrase used in this book could not be used by me except as pastiche. But some simple phrases…. for example I insist on sticking to ‘amn’t I?’ instead of ‘aren’t I?’ Word tells me it’s wrong. Or another I noticed in this book: saying ‘He used do …’ instead of ‘he used TO do …’.

The basis of the film ‘The Quiet Man’ is the third of the five stories; though as I have mentioned, the stories are all linked and the quiet man himself, Paddy, pops up in them all.

I finished this book on the plane on the flight home, my first trio home in over 6 months. I know that is not much to a lot of people, but it is to me. I didn’t start writing this up on the plane as the turbulence was a bit much and it was easier to move on to the next book. Originally I wasn’t going to bring a spare book with me, as there would be plenty of unread books on my parents’ shelves, many of them technically mine. However then I thought: ‘I’m going to finish this book, I need a spare’. And as I was going to be flying I thought ‘ok, I’ll bring something light’, but then I thought ‘I might not like that one, I’ll take another slim volume just in case.’ Tomorrow I’ll go into Dublin for some final Christmas shopping. I don’t think I’ll take either of these books with me to be honest, I’m sure I’ll find something else here tonight when I look. I’m listening to Bach’s Christmas oratorio while my father has fallen asleep on the sofa. We had some of the Tio Pepe sherry we purchased in Jerez and then some Rioja, a last minute purchase at Malaga airport.

Ok, it is now Christmas Day and since writing the above I’ve finished two other books, so I’m falling behind. I’m going to try and rush and finish writing about this one and move one.

The emigration to America is very evident in this collection. Three of the main characters are Irish American. This Christmas the media is full of stories about returning emigrants from Australia, Canada and closer to home. The stories from the US are more about illegal immigrants who cannot return. I don’t think too many go any more to the US; it is not the utopia of earlier years, the ‘America’ of Hotel Savoy.

It was funny, on reading this, how I felt the familiarity set in once I got to the fifth section, which is set in Dublin. For most of the book there was a sense of distance, which I put down to time, but then when I started reading the Dublin section I realised that it was more of the old country/Dublin divide. Dublin and the areas immediately surrounding it, the Pale, has always been accused of being less than Irish, even being West British. Of course I always hated this accusation growing up, but there can be no doubt that growing up in Dublin is different than growing up elsewhere in Ireland. However, I think you can argue that this is the case in most countries. The capital city is always a bit different and to visit the country properly you have to see more than just that. Of course, I’m not actually from the city of Dublin, but even so!

I have to wrap this one up; it’s the 30th, Christmas holidays are over and I have three more books to write about. I feel I am failing with this blogging business after less than a month of trying. I find I have so many thoughts racing around my head, but I am not quick enough to write them down on paper or I don’t have the time to organise them properly. I’m going to try not to give up though. To summarise on this one – a pleasant surprise, if you come across it you should read it!

The Girl in Berlin

Summer, 1951. Two suspected spies, Burgess and Maclean, have disappeared, and the nation is obsessed with their whereabouts.
Speculation is at fever pitch when Colin Harris, a member of the Communist Party who has been in Germany for several years, turns up to see his old friends Dinah and Alan Wentworth. He has news: he has fallen in love with a girl in East Berlin, and is coming home—with her—for good. Meanwhile, Jack McGovern, who sometimes feels like the only decent man in Special Branch, has a rendezvous with a real spy. Miles Kingdom thinks there’s a mole at MI5, and he wants McGovern’s help.
Serpent’s Tail synopsis

I went to Madrid a few weeks back for work. That city gets COLD! London was actually a nice improvement. I’d like to go back to Madrid for some non work reason some time soon (maybe when it’s a little bit warmer) but both of the last times I’ve been there I did get a bit of a fuzzy feeling as I was on the street where I first found my wedding dress. But anyway, we were on the train up to Madrid, I was still reading Human Traces at the time and we had a discussion about books. In a way, maybe that was one of the triggers to writing this blog. One of the guys mentioned that he read 7 to 8 books a week and another mentioned that Madrid had some very good bookshops. I regretted that I hadn’t looked these up in advance as I ended up with a few free hours. We were near some of the most expensive shopping streets in Madrid and it seemed to be too much to hope that one of the ‘good bookshops’ was to be found there. I went up and down, criss crossed, followed back down and….nada! So I went into Corte Ingles to warm myself up and the ground floor was all books including a decent selection in ‘Ingles’ and that’s where I found this one.

I’m now sitting in a church in Estepona, listening to some beautiful music and finally being enveloped by the Christmas spirit. The choir have just finished Silent Night and I nearly cried. Now they are finishing with White Christmas and I’ve just got such a tingly happy feeling all over and I can’t wait to be home. I miss singing. I read an article a few weeks ago extolling the benefits of choral singing to one’s mental health and it’s all true. No matter what mood you’re in, if you sing together you can really lift yourself out of it. Not to forget the buzz of performing. I should really try to sing with this group, but there are any number of difficulties. This whole work/life split between Spain and Gibraltar for one. I joined the Gibraltar National Choir for a very short period but work took over and I never went back. I always find it strange when I think how much worse my work life balance is even though I should be having fun on the Costa del Sol.

So what has this all got to do with The Girl in Berlin? Very little in fact. I’m finding my way with this blogging but I suppose this is my blog and I can write whatever I like and I said from the beginning that I would not be writing reviews, rather I’d be writing about how the books I’m reading fit in around my life, or affect me….or something like that.
I finished reading this book in the church, absorbing the music but reading too. Most of this book has been read on the way too work. It’s too dark on the way back. Am I crazy to miss Irish Rail?

Then I read a big bulk of this on Tuesday night. I had to work so late that it made more sent to check in to a hotel in La Linea rather than take a taxi home. I was also in the middle of a 24 hour fast and thought it would be better to stay awake longer so I would not wake up too early looking for breakfast. I had the television on in the background and some bizarre programme was on where Spanish grannies were singing rock songs and the young folk were dancing away.

The long period of virtually uninterrupted reading meant I could give this book the attention it deserved.
Well I’m not going to call it a classic by any means, but I do think that my husband underestimated it when he dismissed it as a girl’s book quite early on. There are quite a few strands, lots of different characters and not everything really gets resolved or tied up at the end, but I suppose number of strands added some more mystery. It’s a bit obvious to say ‘all is not what it seems’ but you don’t really know which characters are the good guys, the bad guys or simply in between. There are some opinions I could share with somebody who had read the book, but I don’t really want to give anything away.

One thing that stood out for me while reading it is how few books I’ve read that are set in Berlin during this period – post war, post partition of the city into zones, but before the wall was built. If anything I was reminded more of The Third Man, set in divided Vienna, rather than anything set in Berlin. Some of the characters McGovern meets also reminded me of the slimy characters Holly Martins meets when he is trying to find out what happened to Harry Lime. On a side note, if you go to Vienna you really should try to catch a showing in the Burgkino; it’s a bit surreal watching the film in the cinema featured in the film itself. God, next time I’m in Vienna I should do the Third Man tour.

I can’t claim to know Berlin as well as I know Vienna. I wanted to visit Berlin this year as my brother was working there, but the time was never right and now he is home (where I’ll be tomorrow!). I visited Berlin for New Year’s 6 years ago. I was sick of never having any exciting plans when people asked, so I just decided to go. It was fantastic! Of course while there I did the necessary tours. It is so weird and fascinating to walk around a city that you know so well from history books.

Some of my random observations: ‘sherry was a girl’s drink’. I was at the Tio Pepe bodega in Jerez a few weeks ago and I don’t think anybody there would have been saying that!

I liked this one:
‘Idealists are good people. Haven’t you discovered that yet? They’re always working for the betterment of mankind. Trouble is, mankind just wants to go to the dogs in as pleasant a way as possible’.
The discussion of the ‘Spätheimkehrer’ the German prisoners of war who still had not returned at that stage (1951). Is it just me, or is it only in the last 10/15 years that it seems to have been ok to have films/novels that mention the war without demonising all Germans? I remember seeing the film ‘The Miracle of Bern’, which dealt with the difficulties of a family where the father had just returned after 11 years away. Of course the power of soccer triumphs!

Also, seriously, how did the Ukrainians manage to slip into this book as well?

There was something I was going to mention, in reference to a sickening story that is in the news at the moment and how I thought of that while I was reading the later stages of the book, but I don’t really want to spoil it, as this was not something you would guess from reading the outline or the earlier stages.

All in all, maybe I’m naïve and I know that the world is far from a perfect place these days, but when you read a novel like this, you really do not want to be transported back to that time.

Hotel Savoy

Joseph Roth

Cover description (Hesperus Press)

The Great War is over. Gabriel Dan has been released from a POW camp in Russia, and is making his way home to Austria. He comes to an industrial town in Poland, and checks in the once-grand Hotel Savoy there to await news and funds from his family. Here he meets a kaleidoscope of characters, a microcosm of chaotic post-war Europe in which rich and poor, itinerants, dissidents and malcontents live lives of hope, expectancy and despair in an atmosphere pregnant with revolutionary fervour.

By accident I’ve chosen another novel set in Ukraine, well, not exactly. You could say I chose the author for my Vienna obsession even though reading the back of the book I could see that it was set in Poland. Well, it’s set in Lviv, then Poland, now Ukraine, previously one of the outposts of the Austro Hungarian Empire, Galicia. Although I’ve heard a lot about Lviv/Lvov and how it used to be Poland and now is in Ukraine and how beautiful a city it is, I only heard of Galicia a few years ago. I was reading a story by Stefan Zweig about a character called Buchmendel. The setting was Vienna and the character was a Jew from Galicia. To me, living in Spain (but even before that), Galicia meant the northern province of Spain, the Celtic region, somewhere on our travel wishlist. Despite Vienna being one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the era I found it strange that a Galician had made his way into a Viennese story and also that it was quite normal that he was a Jew. Soon after, when he was referred to as a Russian I realised my mistake and discovered that the area is now part of Ukraine. The two areas being named the same is just a coincidence. Galicia was an area with a substantial number of Jews and that made a lot more sense for that story. Somehow a few other books I’ve read since then have also referred to this Galicia and I don’t know how I missed it before. Modern day Galicia is a different landscape, especially if you are going by Anna Reid’s brilliant but depressing ‘Borderland’.

I was reading another book set during the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its immediate aftermath (I’m going to stop apologising for mini obsessions, yes, you may notice similar regions/themes in the books I choose, that’s because there are …my husband jokes that all the books I choose are about orphans in Eastern Europe during the war), I can’t remember which one it was, I’ll try to see if I can find it here. Anyway, either the author or the person writing the introduction name checked Joseph Roth multiple times and I thought ‘why have I not heard of this towering genius?’ and the name went on my internal wishlist. Looking back, it seems that his masterpiece is ‘The Radetzky March’, which I only know as the Strauss march played at the end of the Viennese New Year’s concert every year. So while in London (look, I bought, like, 7 books, get over it!) when I saw this one I needed to buy it.

Since writing the above I’ve read Eileen Battersby’s selection of 2013 and funnily enough she includes a book by both Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Stefan Zweig is described as being ‘Too often dismissed as a generous rich buddy who helped fund the more brilliant Joseph Roth,’ So it really seems like I’ve had a bit of a gap in my reading up until now, one of many I’m sure.

Ok, I’ve now realised that I’ve made a major error in what I’ve written so far. Joseph Roth may have been born near Lemberg/LvivLvov/whatever you feel like calling it in Galicia, but this story isn’t set there. A late night wiki of Hotel Savoy showed a photo of the real life Hotel Savoy in Łódź but my sleep deprived brain read it as Lvov. While reading the book this started niggling. Sure the cover stated it was set in Poland; that could still be Lviv, but an Industrial town? That wasn’t what I’d heard about it. Also when there was mention of Galicia it was a place away from the setting. Oh well, I’ll try to read carefully next time but I’m not going to rewrite all I’ve written above,

One of the books I have on my list of unread, though more accurately ‘unfinished’ is The Trial by Kafka. I’ve actually read, but not finished both The Trial and The Castle, but then again Kafka didn’t finish them either. The Castle is not on my bookshelf because I borrowed it from the library and worked up high enough late fees that it may as well have been. I did appreciate reading those books; I just kept abandoning them for others. I felt a similarity between them and this one, not so much in style as in content, as most of the inhabitants of the hotel seem to be living in a hell from which they can’t escape. Except even though it can be somewhat surreal at times Hotel Savoy stays within the realms of reality.

Gabriel Dan arrives at the Hotel Savoy on his way back from prison camp in Russia. He stops in this city as he has relatives there and he has good memories of the Hotel Savoy. He soon discovers that the hotel is no longer the luxurious establishment it once was. He has to stay on one of the upper floors and ‘apparently it was only the first three floors that had chamber maids’. The upper floors house long term residents who can’t afford to pay their bills and can’t afford to leave either. The lift boy is also not the young rosy cheeked boy that an upmarket establishment should have, but instead is an old man often taking on the character of Death.

I marked down so many pages where something touched me, sometimes it was just a simple description or turn of phrase but I really could see the corridors of the hotel and feel the degradation of its residents. At the end when I look back, there are so many pages marked it’s difficult to narrow down. This is really just a short novella, but to me it said a lot more than many much longer books. There are the characters of Stasia, the dancer, Santschin and his donkey, Glanz and many more. Then there is the character of Bloomfield, who at first seems like Godot, somebody the citizens are all waiting for, but who will never arrive. In Ireland we are quite familiar with the character of the rich relative from the US who only has to return and open his purse in order to solve all the problems of the town.

A few side notes, I always like random mentions of places I’m familiar with in books. When one of the characters is ill the doctor tells him that he needs to go to the South, but if he cannot, then the South needs to come to him and proceeds to order some Malaga wine. Also Zwonimir mocks the recently returned from Paris Alexander ‘you’ve got points on your shoes!’ I had forgotten the obsession with pointy versus non pointy shoes from my time in Belarus. ‘How can you spot a foreigner? By his shoes!’ That was ten years ago and it seems to have also been the same ninety years ago. I wonder if it’s still like that today.

Most reviews seem to suggest that the power of this book is lessened by the coldness and selfishness of the central character of Gabriel, but I think it seems quite normal in the circumstances Gabriel is looking out for himself, but for us, the readers, he is observing everything going on around him. At one point Gabriel and his friend Zwonimir watch more recruits arriving from the East but find it difficult to recognise anybody and he comments: ‘I remember feeling the same sadness when I saw a girl once – we met in a train, and I didn’t know whether I had slept with her or simply had her mend my clothes.’ Stasia could have been Gabriel’s salvation, but he lets that chance slip by.

One other aspect that I like about the book is that it never felt like a chore reading it; you know how that can be with some worthy books? I definitely want to read more Joseph Roth. Maybe I need to set up another page with my list of books I’d like, just on the off chance that anybody needs to buy me a present, wink, wink!

And the Mountains Echoed

So I’m sitting on a bench overlooking this beautiful white village where I’m lucky to live. There are some pedals in front of me, in case I feel like playing at exercising. I’ve just finished my next book ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini. It was another illicit London purchase, but I assume it’s only to be expected that the most recent purchases are the first to be read. Saying that, I think if I hadn’t bought it just before my ban I would have found another reason to include it. A present perhaps? Or then again, as my sister examined my selection she did say ‘Oh I’ve bought that one already.’ Still, we do live in different countries, it might have been some time before she’d see it again. In any case I might have broken a rule for this one, as I really enjoyed his last two books. There are a few authors I’d feel would deserve the breaking of my rule. I’m not going to list them out here as I can’t really think of them all; it’s more a case of knowing when I hear them. Jeffrey Eugenides would be one for example.

I tried to approach this book with low expectations. Yes, I’d really enjoyed the books I’d previously read, but what were the chances of this one standing up?

At first I thought I might have been right, because it didn’t grab me (not that I should expect the best ones to do so) and I didn’t really understand the structure. I’ve delved into this one person’s life and got to know them and now you’re talking about another person I’ve never heard of before, or somebody who was just mentioned by name? I used to like the idea of books of interweaving stories but never really enjoyed them so much in practice. If there’s going to be a thin string holding the stories together why not call it a selection of short stories rather than a novel? One other book on my shelf has been abandoned because of this, though I’ll talk some more about it when/if I do finish it. I’ve also never read the novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ because I read another by the same author, ‘Ghostwritten’, which I did not enjoy very much.

But I do have to say that once I got used to it I did feel it worked. Some of the stories are more connected with the central story (the separation of brother and sister at a very young age) than others. The one that I felt really seemed a bit out of place was the chapter toldl from the point of view of Markos, the Greek doctor. That’s not to say that Markos was not an important character, or that I did not enjoy that chapter it just felt like it belonged in a different book. I suppose it’s a good sign though when you feel that each chapter itself could be the basis of a good standalone book. Also, I don’t want people to get the idea that I cry a lot when reading books, I don’t really! But I did know that there was a danger of this happening, as it had with the other two. As I was reading on and on, despite the sad situations I just felt it wasn’t going to happen. But I did end up tearing up at three points. The first was not really a typical one and despite the misgivings mentioned before it did happen in the Greek chapter.

‘You’ve turned out good’. Another was a piece of advice that I think I should apply to my everyday life: ‘I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old “Ah I wish I was not good to that person.” I suppose you have to take it in the context but maybe it is so simple and so true. And I
know I won’t keep to it….or then there is the adage of ‘being cruel to be kind’. Sometimes it can be true, but how often do you look back and regret those things?

The last part was ‘I leave this on the shore for you.’ I’m not going to comment any further on that one. The book just needs to be read.

Another theme I took from the book was the futility of good intentions. I am very guilty of good intentions. I think ‘something must be done’ and even in thinking this I feel I am doing something. Or now it’s very easy with Facebook shares to feel we are spreading awareness, maybe making a difference. Of course maybe it’s easier to make a difference when you have more money to contribute and if that money comes from less than clean means it helps assuage the guilt. To be honest I don’t really know where I’m going with this but with one character where distance and time helped his guilt at not following through on his good intentions I guess I felt bad because I know how easy that can happen. He was not a hero, but how many of us are?

At another point there is the statement ‘I never saw any of them again’. Such a stark sentence. I think when I get to the age of the person that says this I could probably say that about plenty of people. But I’m still at that stage of not-quite-youth where I think of people as ‘I haven’t seen that person in 5 years’. Or that 5 becomes 10, but there is always an idea that you may see them again in the future. And then some people you’ve friended on Facebook, giving you the feeling that you keep in touch, though in reality you don’t. I think I am only recently remembering some people I have been friends with in the past and thinking ‘God, I actually might never see that person again’. Not that we have fallen out, but that life has just taken us in different directions.

To return to the book, the separation of siblings is always a tragedy and when it is told well it should be a good story. (I also enjoyed ‘The God of Small Things’ and I bawled my way through the musical Blood Brothers.) This one has such a wide scope. It’s a story of Afghanistan and its people. The wars are there, but serve as a backdrop to the individual stories everybody can empathise with as human beings.

 

Last Snow

One week since I last finished a book and I feel like I may have a struggle ahead. I’m still in the office on a Friday evening, waiting for my husband to finish his Christmas party so we can go home. I could start another book…..but it’s in the car! I’m looking forward to it though, because the one I finished today was not great.

I kind of feel you do have to read some ‘not great’ books in order to really appreciate the fantastic ones. When I finish a book that has really consumed me, as Human Traces did, I feel a type of a mourning and I can’t fully commit to another great book straight away. In any case, I have a confession to make. Although I wrote the last post while I was on a flight to London I decided that I could buy books on a technicality – I hadn’t yet published and publicised my pact. Plus, I was going to London, it was my first visit to the English speaking world since June, how could I not visit a bookshop? (Well ok, maybe Gibraltar counts as English Speaking world, but its bookshops don’t).Anyway, now that I’m writing this I can’t use that argument any more, even when I’m at home over Christmas….though I imagine I’ll get some books as presents.

So I bought this book, Last Snow by Eric Van Lustbader. I never heard of the author before (although it turns out I have another book of his….any guesses how?) so basically the thing that sucked me in was the Russian setting. I’m a sucker for a story set in Russia. It didn’t really occur to me that it was going to be such a stereotypical American action story. Maybe it’s because I’ve read mostly decent ones lately, but this just seemed like pure tripe. I had to finish it though, I really did, even though D asked me why I couldn’t just abandon it.

Well part of it was due to this idea of finishing and part of it was the movement of the action to Kyiv with mention of Alushta. I’ve never read a story based in Alushta before and just reading the name brought me back to summer 9 years ago. In the book the characters fly to Simferopol and then drive to Alushta. I took a 29 hour train journey from Belarus; it was fun. I had just realised at a wedding before that I was able to communicate in Russian and on the train I tried it out with some of the different characters we met along the way. I did suffer through some snores in that 54 bunk carriage though. I also read a lot of books. Back then I was reading a lot of British Council library books and classics that were sold at the weekend market in Minsk. From Simferopol we took the longest trolleybus journey in the world to Alushta. I’m not exaggerating. Wikipedia tells me it’s true.

Alushta – I can’t say that it was the most beautiful town, but I had a great time there. It’s probably the Russian equivalent of going to Mallorca or Tenerife. People are not exactly going for the culture. But I loved it. Looking back it seems like a carefree time. Of course I know it wasn’t the case, but I was about to go home, I had very little money but enough to enjoy myself in Eastern Europe. I didn’t have a job, but I didn’t have any obligations either. Two of my books that I’ve started on would have been set there, by default I suppose because I needed a Crimean location and that was where I’d spent most time. I think I’d need another research trip though first!

So to drag myself back to the book….Alushta was just a name and a location for a villa, nothing more, a name picked from a map most likely. I didn’t warm to any of the characters. There were twists and turns but they either did not surprise me or I just didn’t care. This guy is good, no wait he’s bad, oh no he’s good again. I couldn’t even tell you if the plot made sense, I cared that little. I have to mention the most ridiculous scene though, which is set at the airport in Simferopol, when a number of characters try to make a run for it across the runway. Maybe, just maybe it might have worked on film, something starring Tom Cruise or some other old style American action hero. You know, it would have been one of those scenes where your brain would have told you it’s stupid but you’ve switched your brain off and you’re just enjoying the popcorn. But reading it in cold print it’s just plain old stupid.

The book is part of a series and I could have chosen to read 20 pages of the next episode but I didn’t bother. My mourning is over and I’m ready for a book I hope I’ll sink my teeth into….another illicit London buy.

 

 

Human Traces

I know I am not the first person to realise that I am suffering more and more from a short attention span but at many times I have really been ashamed of it. I used to be an avid reader, but I have realised that I am not reading much lately and what I do tend to read is light and disposable. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but I used to mix it up a bit more. I still buy books. I love the process of selecting one in a bookshop, then finding something else, trying to make a decision, then deciding to buy both. Or, since I live in Spain, standing in a bookshop in Dublin, wondering exactly how many books I can pile into my hand luggage and what clothes I can leave with my parents before I fly back, But then when I am back they often sit there for long periods of time before I touch them again. I dread going anywhere without a book, so I always seem to have a few on the go, but might only read a few pages at a time. I am an internet addict, but I kind of regret the ubiquity of internet access. Much of my new book devouring was done on the North Dublin commuter line, whereas now I refresh my Facebook, see what is being discussed on boards.ie and never get the chance to fall in love with a book.

I am on an airplane right now and have just finished an amazing book. It’s one I’ve read in three stages, but it’s only really won me over on this journey. This might be a bit sappy, but any book that makes me cry in public is something special. I’m pretty happy not to have internet access on planes. I know that soon enough it will be the norm though.

So why am I writing all of this? I’ve decided two things. I want to start reading again and I have too many unread books on my shelf. Last year I had a conversation with a friend of mine where she was telling me she was addicted to buying clothes and I compared this with my addiction to buying books. Some time ago she decided to cut back on buying and ‘shop her own wardrobe. I was reminded of a phase I went through about 4 years ago. I had just come back from South America and I was completely broke. I was lucky enough to get a job, but I had to plan everything I spent down to the last euro. So I made a pact with myself not to buy any new books, but instead to read from the many I already had on my shelf. I discovered some gems in this way.

On moving to Spain I brought only a few precious previously read books, the remainder were from the ‘great unread’ so I suppose I continued in this way for a while, but somewhere along the way I started having those book binges in Hodges Figgis and other bookshops. I justified it to myself in that it was a time of recession and now that I had a decent permanent job it was my personal responsibility to keep these places afloat. I was only gone a short while and Waterstones and Hughes & Hughes had vanished from the landscape. (H&H may be back again, I can never keep up…)

But I have to stop buying books and not reading them so I’m revisiting my pact for the foreseeable future. (I can’t put a timetable on it, sorry!) The only new books will be presents, books for book club (not relevant at the moment, but possibly in the future.), books brought with gift vouchers, if I receive any.

What I’d like to do when I get home is write up an inventory of the unread books on my shelf and then cross them off as I read them and write about reading them. I don’t think I am going to be writing reviews exactly, I don’t think I am going to be writing reviews exactly, I don’t know that I feel intelligent enough for that, but just some thoughts and maybe how they relate to me or my experience while reading them.

If there are any masterpieces waiting (and I know some of them are deemed to be so, considering the excerpts from reviews on their covers) please let me know. It’s one thing to read a cold critic’s review and another to receive an impassioned recommendation from a fellow book lover. I’m not going to swear off the internet or even just Facebook, just maybe tone it down a little.

Also I’ll try to stop getting addicted to American TV Series. In the last few months I’ve watched the entirety of Veronica Mars and Greek. I’m starting on season 5 of Breaking Bad, but I watch that with my husband, so I’m not going to make him follow suit because of my weird ideas. In a similar theme to the books though, I have a pile of foreign language or indie films waiting to be watched, but if we decide to watch a film instead of another episode of whatever series we are currently engrossed in, we never pick them. ‘Too heavy’ is the verdict. ‘Need something light tonight’.I think I’ll leave my catching up on weird foreign films to whenever we get a decent TV. Our current one is awful and watching things on a laptop is not quite the same.

But I’ll leave that campaign for another time. I had started writing about books and now I’m digressing.

So to start with the book I’ve just finished is ‘Human Traces’ by Sebastian Faulks. I’ve read a lot about Sebastian Faulks and I know his reputation but I’ve only ever read one of his books and to be honest I can’t remember which one it was. It might have been one of his weaker ones or perhaps I was not yet mature enough a reader to appreciate him, but I was not really tempted to read any more.

We do a Christkindl in our family and last year my sister’s boyfriend had me. Part of his present was this book. I was happy, as I’m always happy to receive books as gifts and he told me he had read it and found it very good. I’m sorry to say that once I was back in Spain it went on the shelf. Too heavy, too much effort.

I eventually picked it up at some stage and read about 200 pages, but while I found it interesting I obviously put it down at some stage and didn’t pick it up again. Then last month they were coming to visit and I felt I should give it another go. I started getting more into it. We were on the beach on day and he noticed that I was reading it and mentioned that it was a really good book, though very sad. I agreed and didn’t remind him that he himself had given it to me.

This time I did want to continue but I temporarily mislaid it. Then just before this trip I was trying to choose a book to bring and selected two, but forgot to bring them with me. Luckily this one was sitting in the car all long. So I picked up where I left off, familiarised myself with the characters again and read and read. I got deeper and deeper and even though I could see where things were going I still couldn’t stop the tears when they came. The book follows two psychiatrists from their childhoods in the 1870s. It seems to be very well researched, though sometimes difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. From the subject matter I don’t think there was any possibility for it to be a particularly happy book so A was not exactly spoiling me by telling me that it was ‘very sad’ as there are thousands of different ways this could be demonstrated. It’s been quite some time since I was last engrossed in a book like this and it’s something that I’ve missed.

In any case, the journey on which I wrote this is over, so I’m going to stop writing about it and start getting back to the reading.