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Posts Tagged ‘Europa Editions’

I was adrift without a book to read on election day and after, having finished up reading a novel for Kirkus, and picked up Jane Gardam because she is wonderful, and because at times of turmoil, there is nothing like a new (to me) novel by a favorite author.

Gardam didn’t disappoint. Bilgewater, like God on the Rocks, Crusoe’s Daughter, and A Long Way from Verona, features a young female protagonist. In this case, Marigold Green, is in her final year of school, and lives with her widower father in St. Wilfrid’s school for boys (who nickname her Bilgewater), with their formidable matron Paula in the north of England.

Marigold says, “I never felt that Paula found me very important though. Far from it. She never had favourites. There is a great sense of inevocable justice about her and although one had the sensation that her devotions and emotions ran deep and true you never found her ready to discuss them–not the loving emotions anyway. . . . For me she had from the start a steady unshakeable concern that wrapped me round like a coat. . . . But she has never tried to mother me. She’s not a soft woman, Paula. She cannot stand slop of any kind and again and again she says– it’s her dictum, her law unquestionable– BEWARE OF SELF PITY.”

And so Marigold attempts to live by Paula’s dictum through awkward adolescence and preparation for Oxbridge entrance exams, and a crush, and a friend who disappoints her, and a lot of emotional disarray. At one point the awful friend tells Paula that Marigold is “mad.” Paula retorts, “Marigold’s not mad. That’s one thing certain . . . . She sees clear and pure and sometimes it’s a bit more than she nor anybody can bear.”

Gardam is a master of this kind of thing — a couple of sentences that not only capture something essential in the human experience, but are also achingly lovely. I come away from every Gardam novel wanting to be friends with her characters, and with her, and to write like her, or just to write half as well as she does.

If you’re looking for something real and true and beautiful (and yes, good fiction should be all of those things) to read these days, you cannot go wrong with any of Gardam’s work, and Bilgewater would be a wonderful place to start.

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If you’ve followed bookconscious for awhile you know I love Jane Gardam. I just finished The Hollow Land this morning, which I’ve had on my shelf for some time but remembered when I noticed on Facebook that Gibson’s Bookstore book club is discussing it on 12/7.

This lovely book is set in a village in Cumbria, and is listed among Gardam’s work for children, although I think it is absolutely a book for everyone. It’s a series of linked stories about Harry Bateman, who is a little boy the first time his family comes to stay in an old farmhouse called Light Trees, which is owned by the Teesdale family. From the start Harry and the Teesdale’s boy Bell, who is a little older, are friends, and over the years, the Batemans become a part of the community. Harry and Bell get into a number of childhood scrapes, getting stuck in an old silver mine shaft (hence the hollowness of the land), getting lost in a blizzard while they were off “on an icicle ride,” and in Harry’s case, tangling with the Egg-witch and her ancient, and by all reports dotty, mother, Granny Crack.

Gardam has a knack for rendering something as simple as a scruffy hillside beautiful: “They began to climb the far side of the cleft, pulling themselves up by bushes and rocks. A sheep racketed away from them from behind some gorse bushes and once a family of grouse shot up from under their feet making a noise like wooden rattles.” These descriptions combined with Cumbrian dialog and the telling of the quiet rhythms of the seasons — blackberry time, sheep shows, etc. — infuse the book with a deep sense of place.

What ties the stories together and makes The Hollow Land a cohesive whole is not only that sense of place but also the friendship of Harry and Bell and their families. This is a book about love, and about community, and also about loyalty and preserving what makes a place special. Harry tells Granny Crack, who says she’s never seen London, “It’s all right . . . . Up here’s better. More seems to go on up here.” As the generations grow they stay or return, even as the world changes. When Gardam wrote it she was cementing the place right into the future — the last story is set in 1999, and she published The Hollow Land in 1981.

If you’ve loved a place like Light Trees, a house “away from it all” where as a child you knew anything could happen, you’ll love this book. But even if that’s not a familiar experience, you’ll savor Gardam’s evocative prose and be transported to a place where, as Bell reassures Harry when he’s worrying about things changing, “Summat’ll fetch up. . . . See what tomorrow brings. It of times brings summat.” Timeless words for any kind of trouble. Like all good books, The Hollow Land speaks of things beyond the words on its pages.

 

 

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This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

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I enjoy my weekly shift on the circulation desk, because I check in dozens of books and get a good sense of what my library community is reading. Recently I checked in a new book, The World Is a Wedding, and it looked so intriguing that I looked up The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, which is the first of Wendy Jones’ novels about Wilfred Price, undertaker and funeral director in Narberth, a village in Wales, in the 1920’s.  Narberth, Jones writes, is a “small, very tightly bound, ancient corner of the world.” Narberth, incidentally, is a real place.

In her novels, Jones fills it with utterly engaging characters who are dealing with the deepest human emotions. Wilfred’s apprentice-master told him “no life without a wife,” and while on a picnic with the village doctor’s daughter, Grace, he finds himself proposing. He quickly realizes that’s not really what he wants. Determined to fix things, he tells her, but by then lots of people know. Meanwhile at a funeral he meets Flora and is overcome with a desire to know her better.

If this sounds pretty simple and “cozy,” it gets much deeper and even a little darker. By the end of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, I was deeply interested in what would happen to Wilfred, Grace, and Flora. Wilfred wants very much to do what’s right in life, and he struggles to know what that is — as anyone should, who gives it any thought. Flora is still haunted by the death of her first love in WWI, and she wants very much to live fully again after years of wearying grief, but isn’t sure, precisely, what happiness will mean for her.

Grace is thrust into the world from her sheltered girlhood not by her own actions, but as she’s acted upon,but she’s no damsel in distress. She wants to take charge of her own destiny — she just needs a little kindness, even if she isn’t sure how to accept it yet. Her story develops more fully in the second novel, The World Is a Wedding. In one scene she’s at the National Gallery in London and she comes across a Rembrandt, “Self-portrait of the Artist Aged 63.” She looks at it for some time and Jones writes, “Across centuries his acceptance soothed her: what he knew of the world reassured her. . . . She had waited a long time in this city to find someone who was this human and who had nothing they wanted her to be.” That’s a passage with staying power, one I’ll return to as I think about this book again.

Jones’ fine writing and thoughtful observation of human nature give the book depth. A host of finely drawn, fully developed minor characters give it life, from Mrs. Prout, the village fortune teller, to Grace’s cold and proud mother Mrs. Reece, to Wilfred’s “da,” the local gravedigger. Narberth is easy to picture too, in Jones’ capable hands. But I may not have to imagine it forever — Downton Abbey’s production team have optioned the books for a mini-series.

It had been some time since I’d read a Europa Edition book and I thoroughly enjoyed these two. This is absorbing, thoughtful fiction that examines what people mean to each other, and how humankind’s flawed communication skills and propensity to misunderstand, and to lie to themselves and each other, can wreak havoc. It’s also about the healing power of friendship, family, and love. Highly recommended — just don’t plan to do much else when you start these, because you may want to read them over a handful of days.

 

 

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I used to take the Europa Challenge. I have so many books to read and other things going on in my life that I stopped doing it but I am still a big fan or Europa Editions, who bring some of the best European writers to American readers.

Time Present and Time Past, by Deirdre Madden, is a quiet, reflective book about a middle aged man, Fintan, whose prevailing quality is a “combination of high intelligence and an innocence so incorrigible that it can sometimes look like stupidity.” He is married to a very kind woman who even his tough old mother loves, and he has a warm relationship with his nearly grown sons and young daughter, as well as his sister, Martina, and beloved aunt, Beth.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But Madden explores Fintan’s inner life, and that of the other characters, in such a way that by the time you’ve turned to the last page you feel as if you’ve discovered what makes us human. Essentially, that is the topic of this novel: the human experience. From remembrances of childhood to reflections on old age, Madden explores what living feels like, and she does it without much of a plot or even much drama*, instead sticking with simple, familiar domestic scenes that are part of her readers’ shared experience — family meals, commuting to work, sitting in a cafe, speaking with a coworker, taking a child and her friend on an outing.

It’s Madden’s exquisite writing that makes this work. Riding with Martina to visit a cousin, Fintan begins to remember where he is: “. . . already something is beginning to wake in Fintan’s memory. He does not recognise any given house, field, or hill but he generality of them speak to him. They are all familiar in a visceral way, and he knows deep down that he has been here, or hereabouts, before now.” I’ve heard Paul Harding describe good prose as something which you always knew, and never heard anyone else put into words quite the same way before. That’s what’s beautiful about Time Present and Time Past.

* there is a very important and well-done subplot about a trauma Martina experienced that changed the course of her life that deserves special mention.

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Jane Gardam‘s Crusoe’s Daughter is a novel about Polly Flint, who goes to live with her aunts and a dour family friend named Mrs.Woods at Oversands, a large yellow house on a marsh in north Yorkshire, when she is only six. Her mother is dead and soon her father dies as well. Around ten years later, as the Great War rages, both aunts and Mrs. Woods are dead and Polly is alone with Alice, the housekeeper. And Robinson Crusoe, her constant companion.

Polly reads Robinson Crusoe over and over. Throughout her life, it is her obsession and her saving grace. While she’s still very young she loses the faith her aunts tried to instill. But she always has Robinson Crusoe I’ve never had a touchstone book like that but I know people who do.

Polly meets very few people out on the marsh. One, a mysterious Mr.Thwaite who appears at her Aunt Frances’ wedding when Polly is sixteen, becomes an important friend whose connection to the family is unclear to Polly or to readers for some time. The people she meets tend to leave — her dead family; a young poet, Paul Treece, who dies in the trenches; Theo Zeit, who Polly loves but who marries someone else his mother chooses.

But Robinson Crusoe remains, as Polly takes in boarders, nearly drinks herself into oblivion, and then, through Alice and a fragile war veteran, finds her calling as a teacher. The scene where she enters a classroom for the first time and takes an unruly group of little boys in hand is fantastic. By the time WWII is dawning, readers sense Polly will be alright. Theo writes and asks her to take in his two daughters, Jewish refugees who just get out out Germany. She brings them home to the yellow house, and we know without Gardam telling us that Polly and these little girls will take care of each other.

In the final chapter of the book, “The End,” Polly is now an old woman and Oversands, which was once isolated, is in the way of a nuclear waste dump the government wants to build. While one of the girls she raised, now a vicar’s wife, talks with a reporter outside, Polly carries on a conversation with Robinson Crusoe (yes, the character).

They discuss fiction, which Polly says has “become quite canonically boring– all about politics or marital discord. The minutiae.” She tells him “You were my bread. You are my bread.” When Crusoe replies that this sounds like blasphemy she remarks, “Quite a few people see an affinity between you and Jesus Christ. They are given grants for theses on the subject.” I laughed out loud. Before saying goodbye, Crusoe tells her she’s had “A quiet life . . . . As a life, not bad. Marooned of course. But there’s something to be said for islands.”

Gardam is so brilliant. I’ve sung her praises here before — I probably can’t add much. Her subtlety, the enormous humanity of her novels, the empathy she elicits for even her most flawed characters, her acute powers of observation about society and human nature, and her great good humor all add up to a deeply satisfying read. I would like very much to read every word she’s written.

In the introduction to the Europa editions reissue of Crusoe’s Daughter, Gardam says its her favorite of her own work. She explains that after her initial publishing success she wanted to write “one that mattered.” It surprised her to find that what she was drawn to was writing about her mother’s childhood world in the northeast of England. “When I had finished I felt I needn’t write anymore books. Take it or leave it, Crusoe’s Daughter says everything I have to say.” I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to find all that she says — on what we place our faith in, how we care about each other, and how we carry on when there’s no one left to care, among many other things — by reading this wonderful, wonderful novel.

As Gardam herself notes, she has written more books, some of which won prizes and sold very well. I’m glad Europa editions has brought U.S. readers this novel, and I hope they continue to publish her earlier work in new editions. One quibble: typos. This is the 3rd book I’ve read in the last few weeks with proof-reading errors. Publishers, when we readers buy books, we’d like them to be finished, please.

I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe but we own a very nice copy so I may.

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I looked around at the library last week for a Europa Editions book, giving myself permission not to choose one if there wasn’t something that interested me. Laurence Cosse‘s An Accident In August looking appealing, so I decided to try it and keep up with the 2012 Europa Challenge.

I’m glad I did. For the first time in a few months I can say I really liked my challenge book. When the novel opens, Lou (short for Louise), has just pulled into her garage in her white Fiat Uno, and she is very shaken. She’s just been part of an accident in Paris in the Alma tunnel; a Mercedes barreled into the tunnel behind her at top speed and scraped her car before crashing spectacularly into a pillar. She had reacted in a panic, driving straight out of the tunnel and home. Lou is trying to calm down and deal with the fact that she should have stopped, and that she could be charged with failure to assist at the scene of the crash.

Then she turns on her radio in the bathroom and realizes not only was she involved in a horrible crash, but also the victims of the incident are none other than Lady Diana and Dodi Fayed and their driver. What was already upsetting becomes Lou’s obsession. She gets through the rest of the weekend pretending to be ill, and then takes her car to a different town on Monday to have the taillight and paint repaired.

But even with the Fiat patched up she is unable to think about anything else. She’s afraid she’ll be arrested and that the press will make a spectacle of her. She tries to just go on, but can’t stop thinking about getting rid of the car and running away. Her employer and her boyfriend both notice how strange she’s acting; she finally feels she really has to act.

She’s about to leave her apartment, with a somewhat amateur plan to ditch the Fiat and go away, when a mechanic from the garage appears. He’s put two and two together and he wants a cut of the money and fame Lou could achieve selling her story to the press. He kidnaps her, telling Lou he has all the evidence that her car needed repairs just a couple of days after the crash, and she has to do what he says.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, but will just say it wasn’t what I expected. An Accident In August succeeds as a psychological thriller even though I could not really understand why Lou didn’t just come forward immediately, tell the police the car hit her and that she was so startled she drove off, in shock. Given the details in the news — that there were hordes of paparazzi in several cars — she could probably have escaped serious prosecution if she simply admitted being afraid.

At any rate, Cosse wrote an interesting tale, and it made for entertaining reading. The setting in and around Paris and the fact that I remember the general and widespread hysteria surrounding Diana’s death added to my enjoyment of the book, not because I liked reading about the tragedy, but because I can recall a person I knew who followed every detail of the crash and investigation, like one of Lou’s co-workers. Also in May when we met up with Teen the Elder after his gap year, I saw the Dodi & Diana memorial at Harrod‘s and a display in Kensington Palace about Diana’s dresses, so I’d actually thought about her death again recently.

I’d recommend An Accident In August as a light but well-written thriller with a strong psychological aspect to the plot.

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