Fiction, Reviews

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)

I bought this book about three years ago in the lovely Persephone bookshop in London, and for some reason have only now got around to reading it. As a rule I love Persephone books and am keen to read more of them. I hadn’t heard anything about Amy Levy, or Reuben Sachs, when I found the book in the shop, but gave it a go based on the blurb and the first page. It is what I would describe as a quite gentle society novel about a young man and his extended family – and as the preface by Julia Neuberger points out, it is also about being Jewish, in London, at the end of the nineteenth century. Levy was Jewish and, has Neuberger explains, had somewhat mixed feelings about this, and was acutely aware of the snobbishness and hierarchy that she observed in the London community.  This is shown throughout the novel in the differing opinions of the Jewish characters, and their approach to life in ‘the Community’.

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While Reuben and the character of Judith Quixano are at the centre of the book, their extended families move around them throughout, organising dinners and parties, and having conversations that seem light-hearted but often underlie more serious issues. Each is given a general standpoint, a perspective from which to comment on their shared life and that of their Community. I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the preface first I’m not sure I would have been aware of the more nuanced social commentary throughout Reuben Sachs, so casually is it thrown into the dialogue. I did, however, appreciate Levy’s gentle sarcasm and irony in this novel, and her wit plays a great role in showing the reader the ridiculousness of some of her lesser characters, such as the Jewish convert Bertie Harrison-Lee. He holds a unique position among the characters of the novel and is seen as something of a curiosity, and a person about whom almost everyone feels the need to make a comment. He becomes a friend of Reuben and in that way ingratiates himself to the five intertwining families who make up the cast.

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And now to the character of Reuben himself: the novel starts with a sweeping introduction, telling us about his success in school and his early life, and the fact that bad health had taken him abroad for some time just before the start of the novel and he has now returned. We also learn that he is a lawyer with political aspirations; but beyond that, even in moments where free indirect speech allows us a glimpse into his mind, I did not feel that I got to know Reuben Sachs. He is a well-drawn character in that we see him from the viewpoints others and one can get a good overall impression, but I did not feel that his personality and character were really explored and developed all that much. Aside from his love for Judith we do not see much of his emotions. I feel like we see more of the emotions of even one of the lesser characters, Judith’s cousin Leo, than we do of Reuben’s.

Judith meanwhile is much more open to the reader. We spend a few scenes alone with her and go through various emotions and feelings, towards several different people and her own position in life. She is a ward of the Leunigers, her cousins, and her unusual social position is well explored – the Quixanos are higher up in the hierarchy of the Community, being Sephardic Jews, but they have fallen on hard times and are forced to send Judith to live with her more ordinary cousins. Personally I found Judith to the most interesting and well-rounded character in the novel, and I liked her a lot. She seems to see the faint ridiculousness of the Leunigers more than anyone else, with their obsessive materialism and dislike of books. We also see Reuben through her eyes quite often, which helps to round out his character – a little.

At only 148 pages Reuben Sachs is quite a quick and unchallenging read, but I very much enjoyed it. It is ultimately a very pleasant book with pleasing social scenes and family drama, as well as an underlying love story, and the politics of the Jewish Community peppered throughout. It is a novel that deserves to be preserved by Persephone Books and to be discovered by a new readership. I think I shall have to go and read more of Amy Levy’s work.

*

Originally published in 1888; I read the 2007 Persephone Books edition (pictured above).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

IMG_0852Like most people, I am familiar with the term ‘mansplaining’. I’ve also heard a fair bit of excitement about Rebecca Solnit as an interesting writer. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me is the origin of the term, something I only learned seeing the word in circulation – when it first became a thing there were lots of little articles about it everywhere, and examples of when women had been mansplained to were shared across social media. It became something of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s even in the OED.

So, once I knew where the word came from, I was curious to know more. I’d heard of Rebecca Solnit a bit, so finding out more about her work certainly appealed. I’m always keen to read a bit more non-fiction, especially something like this that isn’t narrative (I read a lot of that). Plus, the Granta hardback of Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays is very attractive indeed, so I just had to go for it.

It’s funny to hear that something is great, and then actually experience it for yourself. There are expectations, whether they are rational or not. I expected the essay to be good, to be groundbreaking even, but I didn’t know anything about Solnit’s writing style or her narrative voice. Luckily I was pleased with both of these things – her writing is academic and formal enough to be taken seriously, and it is engaging and elegant enough to entertain and keep you turning the pages. With this essay she is writing about a cultural occurrence, but also about a personal experience. The first instance of explaining occurs at a party, with people she knows, and some she doesn’t, and it’s a wonderful example of a personal, female experience that can be translated into the wider context of our current culture and society. It must have been quite the epiphanic moment when Solnit decided to distill this experience and its relevance to women everywhere into this eloquent and succinct essay. It is a perfect translation of life into literature, and then into something bigger that permeates society.

Though the book is under 200 pages, there are six ‘Other Essays’ in this volume. They all centre around gender, feminism, equal rights, freedom. Personally I found Grandmother Spider to be the most compelling. It starts with an analysis of an untitled painting by the artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, in which a woman is obscured by the sheet which she is pegging to a washing line. The wind is blowing it against her, showing some of the shape of her body, but all we see are her hands at the top, trying to peg it down, and her feet below, jarring in their pointy high heeled shoes. This painting and others by Fernandez are printed at the start of each chapter to illustrate some point in the following essay. But this one struck me the most.

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Untitled (image: anateresafernandez.com)

In Grandmother Spider Solnit discusses how easy it is for women to be obscured, hidden from view, made to disappear. She uses the example of family trees, where maiden names are erased, and sometimes lineages only depict the males of the family, leaving out the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. She also writes about the war in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, where countless people were “disappeared”, and how the mothers of the disappeared were the ones who gathered in public to protest. She writes about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project led by the Italian actress Serena Dandini, and how they count every woman killed by a man (about 60,000 annually, worldwide) and how this can be seen as “the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance” – because most of them are killed by “lovers, husbands, former partners”.

I particularly loved the closing paragraph of this essay, summing up Solnit’s reaction to these terrible facts, to this erasure of women throughout history:

To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.

If you have any interest in feminism and equality, no matter your gender, I would recommend this book. I shall certainly be reading more of Solnit’s work – in fact this afternoon I ordered a copy of her new book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. I can’t wait to read it!

*

Published by Granta (UK) and Haymarket Books (US) in 2014. I read the Granta 2014 hardback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Back soon!

Hello dear readers, you may have notice that there have not been any new posts here for a while – and I must apologise for that. Getting married took over my life, and I have just returned from our two-week honeymoon – and life hasn’t got any less busy! I am still reading away, and making notes for reviews, but I just haven’t organised myself in the last few weeks to post reviews. BUT there are some in the works and I plan to return to posting next week. Upcoming reviews include:

  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Labyrinths by Catrine Clay (a biography of Emma Jung)
  • Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (brand new second novel from an author I love, out in July)
  • By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

I’m still reading all your lovely blogs, and am still over on Twitter @lizzi_jr, and I will back to reviewing next week.

Happy reading!

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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

Upcoming Reads and Reviews, April 2017

Upcoming reviews

I am pleased to say I have finally finished reading Gareth Russell’s wonderful book about Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair. It took me about a month to read, which is a long time for me, but it was so worth it. I am now planning a blog post about it in conjunction with Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Catherine that I finished in January. They are two very different books about the same woman and I think it will be really interesting to do a bit of a contrast and compare.

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I also have two other books to review that I have read this year: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and Labyrinths by Catrine Clay, which is a biography of Emma Jung, wife of Carl. These were two of the most interesting books that I have read recently, and reviews of them will soon be up!

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Another review that will soon be up – it’s currently in drafts! – is See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book has been creating rather a lot of buzz, and is out in early May. [Update: this review is now up here.]

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Upcoming reads

As for books I am about to read, there are far too many of course, but these are the ones I am most looking forward to:

Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

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The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

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A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda

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The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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These are books that I actually have copies of, so they are all I am going to include for now (the first four were kindly sent to me by Penguin, and the last three were purchases). There are way more on my GoodReads TBR that I am desperate to read, but until I actually have copies of them it feels too immaterial (literally) to commit to saying I will read them soon!

So there you have it – these are the books you can look forward to hearing about here on the blog and on my Twitter feed.

Which books are you looking forward to?
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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

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Reviews

A little update!

Hello dear readers! My apologies for my absence. Life has been a wee bit crazy in the last month or so, but we have finally moved into our new house and things are evening out… I actually have the time to sit down and write a blog post! Yay! I’m sitting at the dining table in our new house, and I could not be happier about it.

Anyway. I have read a few books since my last post, and I have lots of reviews to write! Here are some of the books I have read recently that you can expect to read about here soon:

  • Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
  • The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg
  • In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

I am also going to do a belated Best of 2016 post very soon, so watch out for that too! I’m currently reading Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Katherine Howard and loving it, so I’ll write about that when I have finished it. I also received a few books for Christmas, and expect to get a couple for my birthday, so I’ll post about that those as well. So lots to come! Your patience will be rewarded!

In the meantime, happy reading and happy new year!

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Fiction, Reviews

Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier

2011 Atlantic Books cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

For his first novel, originally published in Germany in 1995 and only now being published in English, Pascal Mercier chose the academic world of linguistics as the background for the story. More specifically he chose a small group of professors meeting for a conference on the Italian east coast, in a seaside town not far from Genoa. Phillip Perlmann, a German professor, is our central character, the catalyst for the arrangement of the conference by his academic acquaintance and admirer Carlo Angelini. Recently widowed and obviously still suffering from the loss both consciously and sub-consciously (the latter becomes apparent in later stages of the book), he has had a long career but finds himself devoid of inspiration when it comes to writing a paper to present at the conference. He has also recently been invited to Princeton University in America, and will become an honorary citizen of the town during the Italian conference. This problem is the crux of the story – along with the fact that a Russian academic (Leskov) is unable to attend the conference but has sent the Russian manuscript of his work to Perlmann in advance. As Perlmann becomes increasingly nervous and desperate about his having ‘nothing to say’ he sits in his hotel room arduously translating the Russian text into English.

This task takes him almost half the 616-page novel. Having been told by the blurb that Perlmann’s fear and desperation lead him to an attempt to plagiarise Leskov’s text, by the time he comes to make the decision the reader knows it has been coming for some time. By the middle of the book the narrative has seriously begun to drag – Perlmann has become so neurotic and self-indulgent that one begins to find it hard to sympathise, though his situation is clearly dire.

Mercier is also self-indulgent. Page after page is dedicated to Perlmann’s anxiety and the act of moping in his hotel room and showering more than is surely necessary. His semi-reliance on sleeping pills seems superfluous, as if by having him depend on them (mentally at least) Mercier is trying to create a deeper personality that does not really exist, perhaps not even within the author’s mind. One begins to question Mercier’s skill as a writer – possibly the worst things a reader can doubt.

The novel is a little over 600 pages and one wonders whether this length is really necessary. The blurb’s synopsis suggests a depth of intrigue and thiller-esque tension, but this is simply not sustained beyond the first 100 pages, if that. The sheer length of this text seems to exhaust the author and protagonist as well as the reader – the story and the writing both begin to flag somewhere between 200 and 300 pages into the book. Momentum slows and seems to drag at the moment when the tension should be at its highest. Perlmann’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, but the reader becomes increasingly uninterested.

By the third section of the book and the coming conclusion, one does not really care about Perlmann at all anymore and is frankly relieved that this overly long text is coming to an end. Again we are given pages and pages of Perlmann worrying and waiting, counting the time until this or that happens. Again both author and character are self-indulgent and neurotic.

This is a promising novel and has moments of some truly beautiful prose – mostly early on – and it is no surprise that it was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1990s. However, the rambling and indulgent plot structure overwhelm the skill of the writer that lies beneath the obsessional detailing of Perlmann’s worries and neuroses.

*

Published in October 2011 by Atlantic Books. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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