“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

“He Runs the Moon” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – book review

The collection is subtitled “Tales from the Cities”, the cities being early 1970s Denver and Boston, and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of Wendy Brandmark’s characters are in a state of flux, either their lives are about to change or they discover something that could be life-changing and the story stops in time to guide the readers to deciding whether the character would stay or leave.

In “The Stone Woman”, a young girl is afraid of the ‘witch’ in the basement apartment, but, when the girl gets lost, the ‘witch’ comes to the rescue and the girl befriends the Jewish woman who is prepared to tell the girl the truth about her ill grandmother that her parents have tried to protect her from. But the woman won’t talk about the number tattoos on her wrist.

A student, inspired by John Millais’ “Ophelia” is drawn to Pre-Raphaelite-style gowns in “The Denver Ophelia” that she finds in thrift shops in the hope her professor will notice her. However, she discovers she’s not the only one with a crush. Will she see sense or persist in her unrequited love?

A man faces a conflict of loyalties in “The Book Thief” when he discovers his kleptomaniac girlfriend has stolen from his friend’s bookstore.

A teacher of illiterate adults discovers his flatmate has gone back to a lover who doesn’t respect him while one of his students forms the phrase “He Runs the Moon” because he couldn’t find the word ‘sees’. Does the teacher intervene or let his flatmate discover for himself that he’s making a mistake?

Within the brief space of her short stories, readers get to know the characters in Wendy Brandmark’s atmospheric stories well enough to suspect they know which decision the characters will take. The selective but rich details in each story make them distinct and memorable with their characters coming to life. Each story is focused and targeted on its plot so it feels exactly the right length with no story outstaying its welcome.

“He Runs the Moon” by Wendy Brandmark is available from Holland Park Press.
Review of Wendy Brandmark’s novel “The Stray American”

Saboteur Awards Short List Best Reviewer

“Winegarden” Anthony Ferner (Holland Park Press) – novel review

winegarden Anthony Ferner bookcoverJacob Winegarden is a professor of theoretical physics, specialising in thought experimentation, and shielded from commerical reality by working in academia. While his department’s offices were being refurbished, Winegarden was temporarily relocated to a cramped space above a Cats Protection League centre where a black cat adopted him and became a running joke amongst faculty staff and students. Winegarden is agnostic but was brought up in the Jewish tradition and marries a Jewish woman, Miriam. Their only son, Joshua, is stillborn.

The story opens with Winegarden in middle age and moves back to his childhood and forward to old age in a nursing home. It explores Winegarden’s attitude towards his Jewish religion, the persistence of his love for Miriam and his reluctance to shut down options by making a decision.

Winegarden’s wedding day was upset by an outburst from his father so, although the day ended happily, it was also marred. One of the most successful periods of his working life was marred by the serious illness of his colleague’s daughter. The delight and anticipation in Miriam’s pregnancy gives way to grief as his son is stillborn. This nearly breaks his marriage. Winegarden wants to talk but his wife doesn’t. Her grief is internalised, finding eventual solace in religion, shutting off from her husband.

These ambivalences allow Anthony Ferner to explore ironies using a sense of subversiveness to show how Winegarden copes with the life he finds himself in. Miriam is his anchor, pulling him out of his head to engage with daily life, while friends prefer to engage on an intellectual level. It is in nearing the end of his own life, Winegarden is pushed to confront his grief for Jacob and the life that could have been.

Winegarden and Miriam are engaging characters and the mix of seriousness and humour make “Winegarden” a compelling, thought-provoking read. Despite his intellectual, abstract thought patterns and career Winegarden’s anxieties make him human. He naturally over-analyses and over-things everything but the wry humour brings him to life.

“Winegarden” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Stray American” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Stray American Wendy Brandmark book cover

Larry Greenberg teaches law at an American college in London, England. He signs a new contract each year and thinks of going home to Boston, USA. He vacillates between girlfriends, skeletal Carla and the Rubenesque Devorah. Carla is English: eccentric and blank and works as an illustrator for medical textbooks. She draws a picture of him naked with a wing in place of one arm, telling him a story about a girl whose brothers were turned into swans. The girl has a limited chance to turn them back into men but doesn’t do it quickly enough and the youngest is left with one wing.

Devorah is an exiled New Yorker with every intention of going back home. Through her, Larry meets the “Un-Americans”, a group he’d put off joining when a colleague invited him. Collectively the group want to fit in but their Britishness is worn like a new coat: it looks OK in the mirror but the shoulders are stiff and the arms not quite the right length. After a dismal bring-and-share Thanksgiving, the group begin to drift apart.

When a foreign student, who cannot return to his home country due to involvement in political activism, discovers he cannot stay in England either, he turns to Larry for help. Larry’s expertise is corporate law, so he refers the student to a colleague. This sets in motion a chain of events that force Larry to choose between Devorah (USA) or Carla (England).

Through Larry, a man who could pack up his office in ten minutes and fly, Wendy Brandmark explores themes of rootless and identity. At first Larry’s disengagement and knowledge that he can always return to Boston so has a safety net, seem like advantages. He has no urgency to make life in London work, unlike his student who has no safety net or Devorah who feels claustrophobic in London’s clutter and longs for her childhood spaces. But his safety net wraps around him and becomes a barrier. Keeping his options open prevents him from committing to any of them.

“The Stray American” is a novel where everything seems to happen but everything happens. Larry is both flawed and engaging. His desires for both Carla, a distant fluttering bird, and Devorah, homely and vibrant, are credibly drawn. While Larry sees himself as putting in his hours at a college where no one is allowed to fail, his students see a professor and at least one goes on to enter a prestigious US college. Similarly his colleagues ask advice and invite him to dinners, showing Larry is more substantial then he thinks he is. He makes “The Stray American” an engaging, inviting read.

“The Stray American” is available from Holland Park Press

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Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“Away from the Dead” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – book review

Away from the Dead Karen Jennings book cover

“Away from the Dead” is a collection of fifteen short stories. Each is clearly located in South Africa and each explores a different facet of life in South Africa so although each is written with a minimalist, light touch, using few but necessary words to enable readers to picture the setting and the characters, no two stories feature the same topic even if similar themes emerge.

The title story focuses on a farm worker forced to leave his home and the graveyard where his wife is buried to search for work where he is no longer required and his age counts against him. He is forced to decide whether to stay in poverty or move away in the hope of finding work. Age also emerges as a theme in “Making Challah” but this time the focus is on an ageing woman with the baking an extended metaphor for her life and need to keep rituals going. The darker sides of South African society are explored in “On the Train” where a young man is returning home after committing murder, “From Dark” which shines a spotlight on illegal mining, “Allotment” where a couple struggle to survive in a zinc shack in the shadow of new stadium being built for the World Cup and “Andries Tatane” who dies during a protest in Ficksburg. The darkest story is Mia’s. “In the Shark” sees her yearning to temporarily throw off her caring responsibilities and see this magnificent shark the fishermen boast and tell tales about. The shark is also a metaphor for darker desires as it circles the fishing village and draws Mia to a course of action that destroys her sense of self.

In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished. Readers feel the huge sense of loss and need for closure of Emily Louw whose husband left to find work but never returned. When she reports him missing to the police, the officer regards her and implies he’s not surprised her husband left when he looks at the poor sight of her, nursing a newborn, shredded by anxiety and barefoot. A young couple struggle to build a relationship when their expectations differ: she expects lavish gifts and him to have thought of everything while he wants simple pleasures and her company when their planned picnic is rained off. It’s hard not to feel for Alletjie who scrapes by from keeping goats and chickens and receiving her brother’s disability grant while her alcoholic husband and brother do nothing and she dreams of turning their hand to mouth existence into a life.

Karen Jennings’ stories explore and develop these themes, using credible characters in realistic settings simply making the best of their lot. She does not moralise or tell the reader what to think. Overall the impression is that South Africa is still trying to find its way post-Apartheid, to process its history and work towards peace. Progress is being made however it is still a very uneven, unequal society. But not without ambition to make change, just as most of her characters are motivated to move towards a better life or at least make the best of their situation. Whilst the stories in “Away from the Dead” deal with the darker aspects of South Africa society, they are not without hope and suggest a society in transition.

Away from the Dark” is available from Holland Park Press

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“Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?” Laura Del-Rivo (Holland Park Press) – short stories

Where is |My Mask of an Honest Man Laura Del-Rivo book cover

A collection of seven short stories set in and around Notting Hill, London. The first, “Dark Angel” covers similar ground to Laura Del-Rivo’s novel “The Furnished Room” which has been filmed as “West 11”. Oily-eyed Joseph Kuhlman is in search of a furnished rented room in which to write his novel in black notebooks. He is a distinctive character. On the surface he’s a shifty, petty thief, born with a grudge and out to turn any opportunity to his advantage but lacks the competence to actually do so. He weaves stories around his past, giving himself a dangerous edge, suggesting he once murdered someone. He dresses himself up as a doctor/counsellor, but readers suspect he’s really the patient. He also appears in a couple of the other stories as a minor character.

“J Krissman in the Park” is a bitter-sweet tale of a writer contemplating rejections whilst sitting in a park full of happy families. “Sometimes he felt as if wolves were eating his mind, but he did not know whether the wolves were other people or generated by himself.” In contemplation, a family group sit on a nearby bench:

He dared not speak his thoughts aloud, ‘You are unnecessary and therefore vile. Your love is complacent.’

The virtue of the young women was that they were ordinary and loving. The power of the ordinary overwhelmed that of the wretched Krissman. The quite pretty sisters hardly noticed him; then fluently dissed him, ‘Ohmygod, how spazz was that?’

Nothing had happened except that an old man had passed a family in a park. The space between buildings was not even a park; only a public garden with trees, squirrels and benches. At the gate, Krissman turned his mind to the article which had described the other two visible universes. There would be few or no visible stars. He was too uneducated in physics and maths to expand his mind but the effort of trying to do so for several seconds expanded his soul.”

In the longest story, “Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?” an elderly novelist develops a crush on her much younger landlord who thinks he’s doing her a favour by moving her from her top floor home to a ground floor flat in a different building still owned by him. The reason for the move was because repairs were needed to the ceiling, but once she’s moved out, the ceiling is left unrepaired and a new tenant moved in. The landlord’s plan back-fires because he hasn’t yet figured out that a home isn’t just the place you rent.

Most of these stories could be summed up in plot terms as ‘nothing had happened, except’ with the emphasis on ‘except’. These stories focus on their characters and Laura Del-Rivo’s writing style. She allows the characters to narrate for themselves, using words with precision and deftness which is combined with an ear for contemporary dialogue so the stories don’t feel dated or irrelevant.

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“To Sing Away the Darkest Days” Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

To Sing Away the Darkest Days Nobert Hirschhorn book coverSubtitled “Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs”, this collection is from a five year project where Norbert Hirschhorn sourced over a thousand songs and translated a selection of them into English. Most available translations are very literal and somewhat stilted. Norbert Hirschhorn’s aim was to capture the rich idioms and cadence from the original in the translation. Helpfully the book comes in two sections, the first is the re-imagined poems and the second gives the original Yiddish with a literal translation and web links to either the song or publication as appropriate. Yiddish doesn’t use capitals but initial capitals have been used to follow convention.

I always appreciate seeing the original alongside a translation (whether literal or a more free ‘in the spirit of’ translation) as, even if I don’t know the original language, I can usually see sound patterns or get a sense of rhythm and line length. Full marks to Holland Park Press for doing so because, for reasons of costs and/or space, it’s easier to leave out the originals. It’s also a mark of confidence since readers who do know the original language can compare the translation with the original.

If I take three stanzas of “The Little Stove”, in Yiddish:

Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,
Azoy zog ikh aykh on,
Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre,
Der bakumt a fon.

Az ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
Vifl in di osysyes lign trern
In vifl geveyn.

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,
Oysgemutshet zayn,
Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,
Kukt in zey arayn!

The literal translation is:

Learn, children, with great eagerness,
This is what I tell you:
Who is the fastest of you to learn Hebrew,
He receives a flag.

As you, children, get older,
You will yourselves understand,
How many tears lie in these letters
And how much weeping.

As you, children, haul the burden of exile,
Become exhausted,
You will derive strength from these letters
So look into them!

Even without knowing any Yiddish, it’s possible to see that in the translation, the rhymes have gone and the rhythms aren’t those of a song and that’s before the clumsiness of some of the English expressions are considered. Norbert Hirschhorn re-imagines the ending as:

…                   Nu, what else do our people
.              Need? Say it, say it again. As you drag
.                             the weight of exile, you,
.                                       my treasures, will be

dispirited, you’ll be plagued, but
.                   courage comes through Aleph-Beys, so
.                         say those letters, say them again. When you
.                                 grow up, my dears, you’ll learn how these

letters fetch sorrow, fetch tears.

The re-imagined version frees itself from the constraints of the original rhyme scheme and rhythms but better conveys the irony of urging children to learnt their history whilst knowing that knowledge will become a necessary burden. It takes a knowledge of the past to understand the present. Rather than use the generic “children”, Norbert Hirschhorn uses first “my treasures” and then “my dears”, the latter creating an internal rhyme with “tears”, personalising the song. However he changes the tone of the original, which ends on an exhortation to children to learn Hebrew, to a downbeat, regretful end so the re-imaging falls away.

A complete song and re-imaging gives a better feel of what Norbert Hirschhorn is aiming to achieve. “A Yiddish Divorce” in the original Yiddish is:

Tunk I brent a fayer
In shtiln tsorn, blas,
An umet oyfn der hayzl
An unmet oyfn gas.

Der vint, der vint, der beyzer,
Er rayst mit beyz gefil;
Do klapt imer shtarker
Do klapt imer shtil.

– Gut-ovnt, shvester Dvoyre,
Mayn kumen iz nisht gut.
Dayn man fun Amerike
Shikt dir op a get.

Er vil dikh nit kenen,
Er vil dikh nit visn;
Day man fun Amerike
Shikt dir op a get.

The literal translation is:

A fire burns dimly
In silent rage, white.
Sorrow lies upon the house
And there is sorrow in the street.

The wind, the wind, the angry wind,
It tears us with angry feeling;
Here it blows strongly,
Here it blows quietly.

Good evening sister Deborah –
My coming is not good.
Your husband sends from America
A divorce for you.

He doesn’t want to know you,
He doesn’t want to acknowledge you.
Your husband from America
Is sending you a divorce.

Norbert Hirschhorn’s version again moves away from the original rhythms and structure although the two main stanzas use the simple rhyme scheme present in the early stanzas of the original:

The bitterest wind torments a street.

.          Good evening sister –
.          I bring you bad news.
.          Your husband in America
.          says for you, he no longer has use.

The lacerating wind penetrates a house.

.          He no longer wants to know you.
.          Here is paper, from his own pen:
.          Your husband in America
.          says You are permitted to all men.

An icicle wind impales a heart.

Three children do cartwheels
out in the yard.

The stanzas surrounded by wind have a singular tone of the bitterness of rejection, cutting out the rage and sorrow in the original. However, the three children create an additional poignancy as they suggest a longer marriage and the tumble of cartwheels suggests the coming whirlwind of divorce. All versions acknowledge the unfairness of being on the receiving end of a unilateral decision: the wife is not being asked for a separation but being told she’s rejected. The only duff notes are in the use of “bitterest” and “lacerating” to describe the wind: I don’t think they’re necessary. For me, “The wind torments a street” is stronger than “the bitterest wind torments a street” because the unbalancing of stresses focuses attention on “torments” in the former.

Overall I do think Norbert Hirschhorn’s re-imagings do add to the original songs, offering a new way of looking at them. Just like a good cover version of a favourite song enables listeners to hear something new in the original. These covers demonstrate that care and attention has been made not only to the meanings of the originals but also the phrasing and cadences. He is right to have the confidence of publishing his re-imagings alongside the originals and literal translations.

“To Sing Away the Darkest Days” is available from Holland Park Press

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