I may have been offline for a while, but I was still busy reading towards the end of July (although things have slowed down since). I managed to finish another 4 of my 20 books of summer. I am doubtful, however, that I will manage to finish all 20 of them in the week or so that I have left for this challenge. Besides, I’m also trying to add at least one book for Women in Translation Month and then embark on my Jean Rhys reread. I also have to prepare some Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover, so all in all, a good reading time ahead, if I can clear my clutter and get my act together.
It’s been such a long time since I finished these books (and I did not take notes at the time, which is VERY BAD practice, I’m sure you’ll agree), that all I can offer here are my unfiltered reactions to them, rather than a proper in-depth book review.
By strange coincidence, I read a lighter-hearted version of a climb of Kanchenjunga in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale just a few days later, but this third highest peak in the Himalayas has had its fair share of mountaineering accidents. Above all, it is renowned for a demon or deity resident at the very top, which has meant in practice that all mountaineers have stopped just short of the actual summit, allowing the mountain to remain inviolate.
It’s on this tradition that Michelle Paver plays in this old-fashioned ghost story with plenty of claustrophobia, genuine fear and a sense of adventure. I loved the historical and exotic background, days of the Empire feel to the narrative, the slightly outdated attitude towards the ‘coolies’, the set-up of a story within a story. In short, this was fantastic scene-setting, reminding me of Jules Verne or The Woman in Black or MR James. Finally, when the climb proper starts, you never quite know if it’s altitude sickness or ghosts or fear itself… A great yarn with such a remarkable sense of place and atmosphere that I felt chilled even in this heatwave!
11 – Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe
There was me – my name is Green – and my little sister, Blue. There was October, who we called Toby, and Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg. There was Richard, of course, who was one of the Founders. And there was Freya.
We were the Family, but we weren’t just an ordinary family. We were a new, better kind of family.
We didn’t need to go to school, because we had a new, better kind of education. We shared everything.
This book does a very good job of describing the confusion and love/hate relationship that many who grow up in a cult/commune can have with the outside world, but ultimately also with the cult itself. The inward looking language and the child’s way of reasoning and justifying even bad stuff are in equal measure compelling and sinister. What makes this particularly hard to read is because it is all about the death of ideals – how a community which started off with high principles can subvert them and turn sour – a powerful metaphor about many types of human societies and cultures.
12 – Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground
This is the debut novel by Stav Sherez, written over 10 years ago. The scene is Amsterdam, which is becoming increasingly gentrified in its tourist centre (‘Disneyland’, as a Dutch writer told me recently), but still has a sleazy underbelly and shadowy demons of an undigested past underneath its veneer of tolerance and friendliness.
A body turns up dead in a park in Amsterdam; he has a book belonging to Londoner Jon Reed in his pocket along with his telephone number. Detective Van Hijn asks Jon to identify the body, who is presumed to be the latest in a series of murders rocking the city. All that Jon knows about the dead man, however, is that he was a homeless person whom he had temporarily taken in, and who seems to have been reconnecting with his Jewish heritage, something Jon has yet to do. The detective and Jon are helped by Suze, an American student in Amsterdam, fascinated by the art of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish painter who died in a concentration camp aged 26. They uncover that the motive for the murder appears to be the finding of a hidden trove of 49 reels of film from Auschwitz that are up for auction and the hunt is on to find them.
The concentration camp theme is still shocking, although it is well trodden ground by now, but it’s the passages about self-harming and body piercing (or body mutilation) which I found most disturbing. A call for more pain in order to escape the existential pain – it’s just something that doesn’t sit well with me, no matter how much empathy I usually have for people who are very different from myself. If you can stomach this, however, it’s an atmospheric, interesting book, although perhaps it attempts to tackle too many themes at once. The scenes describing Charlotte’s life and art were of particular interest, and have since been reimagined in David Foenkinos’ book Charlotte.
Brenner is an ex-cop who’s become an ambulance driver and his world-weary gaze and washed-up lifestyle (so typical of a middle-aged Viennese man) informs this unusual crime novel. An unusual two-in-one murder witnessed by the ambulance crew arouses his suspicion and what emerges is a scurrilously funny and sarcastic story of rivalry between ambulance services. You probably have to be Viennese to fully appreciate the black humour and dialect, while the intrusive narrator who seems to comment on every single action or decision is an acquired taste. But, if you’re in the mood for it, it’s a wickedly funny read and probably devilishly hard to translate. [Although it has apparently been translated as Come, Sweet Death and published by Melville International Crime.]