Family Lexicon, Natalia Ginzburg
The story of an eccentric Italian family. Despite the very different setting it reminded me strongly of Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate. The same characters brought vividly to life. Mad father full of strange sayings and stranger advice for his offspring. Distracted mother and close but competitive siblings. Vivid writing puts you right in the middle of all the shouting, laughing, squabbling and reconciliations described. Lots of notable Italians cross paths with different family members. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of them but you get the picture (and can always google them). This is an upper middle class Jewish family interacting with the cultural and political intelligentsia of the day. The family’s circumstances have been likened to the one depicted in The Garden of The Finzi-Continis (beautiful movie). And what a period it is – the 1930s and the inexorable rise of fascism. But the political situation plays second fiddle to family affairs in this account. And even then family members are not accorded their social status. This is the Levi family and Natalia’s father is a renowned scientist (histologist) Guiseppe Levi; not that you would know it from this account. There’s scant mention of new racial laws affecting Italian Jews and the family’s opposition. We read that her father and brother are imprisoned and that her husband is exiled and later that he has died in prison during the German occupation. But nothing more. Wikipedia will give you the fuller picture which, in itself is fascinating. But it’s not the subject of this book. This is a family history and the title is apt, it’s about the language they used to communicate which centred their relationships. A great read.

The Everlasting Sunday, Robert Lukins
I had to think long and hard before I remembered the details of this book which was loaned to me by Sue at the gym. But once I did it all came back to me including my enjoymnet. It’s a very small book capable of being read in one sitting. Robert is an Australian but the location is England. It’s about lost boys about whom we are told very little except that they are incarcerated in a home for delinquent children away from their families and everything to do with their former lives. We start with a young boy being driven to the place and left to fit in as best he can. We see everything through his eyes. It takes a while for sense to emerge from the chaos. The place is fantastical; shades of Hogwarts. Strange punishments meted out seemingly with little rationale – like a boy expelled to the chook house when our newcomer arrives. But no offence taken – there’s a great deal of love for the avuncular head of the place who speaks in riddles but always kindly. The boys all pitch in together to make the place work. But there are different tribes and fights break out with a sudden ferocity from time to time. The only female characters are a much loved, all-knowing cook and the girlfriend of one of the former boys who turns up down on his luck. It’s set in winter and there are brief interludes where the season is a character commenting on the foolhardiness of these humans who wander about in the snow. I would have liked more of that, and for it to have had a role in the denouement which is really well done. It achieves that rare thing – a good ending. There’s a lot contained in this small book – friendship, brutality, homophobia, murder, sacrifice. Recommended.

The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I loved everything about this memoir which describes the impact on the author and her sister of being brought up by a psychopathic mother and, it must be said a weak father. We meet the latter only in his declining years although he has been a high flying oil executive in the past. There seems to be plenty of money although both girls have been disinherited some time before the story starts. Which is when they hear their mother has broken her hip and has to go to hospital. They take this opportunity to rescue their father from the mother’s clutches and have her committed. Not a straightforward thing. There are wonderful descriptions of medical bureaucratic ducking and weaving as people try to avoid responsibility. The mother charms all the hospital staff who regard the sisters as demons. There’s a great description of the different types of carers who are available for hire to care for elderly folk ranging from do-gooders to gold-diggers. It’s not a straightforward linear tale; we go back and forth in time with vignettes that illustrate the perfidy of the mother and how difficult it is to deal with someone who brazenly lies to people. The relationship between the two sisters is sensitively described – and so realistic! The author describes their different essential characteristics resulting from their strange upbringing. Hers is sadness which envelops everything whereas her sister’s is rage erupting like a geyser. There is nothing extraneous to this central theme – the impact on the girls of having this mother – in the book. We hear very little about the author’s circumstances; there’s an ex-husband and at least one child, a son living and working in Hong Kong but beyond that not much. Nothing about her professional life; I think she’s been an academic and lived in France before settling in Sydney. And we hear very little about the sister’s life apart from what relates to the effect on her of the mother and her role in rescuing the father. This is a terrific book, a worthy winner of the Stella Prize, and strongly recommended.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, Olga Tokarczuk
I read this again because Olga won the Nobel Prize, having read it last year. This is what I said then – This is the book on which one of my favourite films from MIFF2017 was based, Spoor. The author also wrote the screenplay. I really think the name of the book is much better. It comes from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell; In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. I think having seen the film may have contributed to my enjoyment of the book; particularly in imagining the harsh and wild landscape in which it is set. We are on a plateau between wild woods on the one side and a mountain range on the other. On the harsh and unforgiving Polish side of the border with what she imagines to be the more warm-hearted Czecks. I loved the heroine; she who hates her first name (Janina) and who is always correcting the pronunciation of her second, Duszejko. She is a woman in her sixties living an independent life, protective of the wildlife that surrounds her which puts her at odds with the hunting shooting culture of the locals. She gives her neighbours nicknames that describe their characters; Oddball and Bigfoot. The story opens with the death of Bigfoot and we move on to a number of mysterious deaths of members of the hunting club. Duszejko insists that is the animals taking revenge but the police ignore her. Who takes notice of a crazy old woman? she asks. Who even sees a crazy old woman? She is a part-time teacher at the local school, until her antagonism to hunting gets her sacked. She also cares for the homes of some residents who only come to the place in summer. She is helping a former student of hers translate William Blake and there is a quote at the head of each chapter. The story rollicks along and there is a very satisfactory ending. Which I keep saying is a rarity but lately I have been lucky with them! I enjoyed it as much the second time around. This time I got out a map and looked at where the action is set which gave me a bit of a deeper understanding of the political import of the commentary about national characteristics. I loved this book but could not get into her earlier much lauded novel, Tracks, at all.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
This was on any number of Best Books lists for 2018 and I bought it then but have only just got around to reading it. I didn’t know much about Korean history and so found it all very illuminating. I’ve watched some episodes of a warm-hearted comedy on Netflix called Kims Convenience which is about a Korean family living in Canada where the parents run a corner store. The mother spends a lot of time at the Korean church and worrying about what others think of her children while the father rails against anything Japanese. This book explains the background to both of those cultural idiosyncrasies. Although it is a much darker tale. Quite beautifully written it tells the story of a Korean family mostly through the eyes of a young rural woman who becomes pregnant to an older and very dashing Japanese based Korean man. A saintly Christian missionary marries her and takes her to Japan where his brother works and where he joins a Korean church. The whole history of Korean subjugation to Japan is told in the experiences of these people. They are very much second class citizens. We meet the dashing older man who is a gangster; pretty much the only way Koreans in Japan can get ahead. The other way is running Pachinko parlours, hence the title of the book. We see, with brutal clarity, the secondary role of women in Korean culture as well. The novel takes us through the second world war during which our missionaries are imprisoned, beaten and starved to death. The brother is hideously injured by the Nagasaki atomic bomb. The women are protected by the gangster. We see the next generation of Korean Japanese and learn how they are discriminated against. All very enlightening and very moving. You really feel for these people. I liked this book a lot.

Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
Another long ago purchase which I’ve only just read. My New Years Resolution not to buy new books is working! Actually what prompted me to read it is the buzz about her latest book, The Man Who Knew Everything. This was a strange tale. Very beautifully written. I like under-written novels rather than having everything spelt out but this one may have been a little too opaque. Two couples on holiday in France: a famous poet and his war journalist wife and their adolescent daughter; a fat epicurean fellow and his wife whose antique shop is on the skids. They are joined by a young woman, a fan of the poet who may or may not be mentally unstable. Overlooking them as they lounge around the pool is an elderly neighbour who has a history with the young woman. The caretaker of the villa and the handsome local cafe worker have minor roles in the story. Not that there is much of a story. This is all atmosphere and complex interactions, hidden allegiances. All of which result in a death which comes as a surprise. I’m still not sure about it. Might have to re-read it. Jury’s out.

Sleep of Memory, Patrick Modiano
Another Nobel Prize winner. Another slight story if it can be called that. Rather, a very short meditation on memory. It’s all very obscure. A man remembers quite specific details of things that have happened in the past and recounts them faithfully. There was a girl, there was a woman, we went to this place, these people were there. But does it amount to much? I’m not sure. Another where the jury is out.

Havana Red, Leonardo Padura
I really must give up trying with detective stories. I actually bought this book in contravention of my New Year’s resolution because a later book by the author was lauded by someone in my twitter feed. I wanted to start with the first in what is a quartet of books featuring Lieutenant Mario Conde. Perhaps a mistake. This one was published in translation in 2005, to be followed by Havana Black in 2006, Havana Blue in 2007 and Havana Gold in 2008. There’s lots of political intrigue and murky goings on. I don’t know whether it’s an accurate reflection of Havana society; if so it’s pretty awful. This one is about the murder of a transvestite – or was the boy in the red dress really a transvestite or a boy seeking revenge? Persecution of gays in Cuba a strong theme. And corruption of senior officials and within the police. What did me in was the appearance of the young woman with no back story and no other purpose than to engage in rough sex with our hero whenever he wanted it. Spare me. I can’t remember where I saw the article that prompted me to buy this. The author has also written about the murder of Leon Trotsky in a book called The Man Who Loved Dogs, but at 600 pages that seems a bit too long for me to be interested. His latest to be translated is Heretics in 2017.

The Tin Man, Sarah Winman
This was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2017 which is why I bought it in early 2018. It is a quietly affecting story of a man coming back to living a full life after his wife’s death has sent him into a downward spiral. Maybe I’m too critical, and maybe I’m influenced by Ricky Gervais’s beautiful series on the same subject, After Life, which was devastating but I didn’t find this deeply touching or dripping with tenderness as promised on the cover. Quite nice is what I would say and not really worth the time. I think there’s too much going on really. There is a hideous father (of course), a loving mother dead too soon, the boy denied the life of an artist, instead into the car factory. Then there is his friendship with another boy that may have developed into a loving gay relationship, but didn’t. Instead we get a close friendship between the three of them – boy, boy friend, wife. It’s all a bit too much to be made sense of.

 

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