Review | Arab Jazz, Karim Miské | MacLehose Press

As subdivisions or departments of bigger publishers, imprints break up monolithic companies, give space to individual editors to stamp their list with a defining character and originality, and reassure authors that they are not disappearing into the corporate ether. The MacLehose Press is an independently-minded imprint of Quercus Books, founded by Christopher MacLehose and publishing the very best, often prize-winning, literature from around the world; mainly in translation but with a few outstanding exceptions as English language originals.

La vie est belle, le destin s’en écarte
Personne ne joue avec les mêmes cartes
Le berceau lève le voile, multiples sont les routes qu’il dévoile
Tant pis, on n’est pas nés sous la même étoile.”
IAM – Nés sous la même étoile [Born Under the Same Star]

Although a thriller, Arab Jazz is really about muddled identities, lives destroyed by religious extremism, and dysfunctional families coexisting in fragile racial harmony in impoverished neighbourhoods. The narrative travels between the ungentrified 19ième arrondissement of  north-east Paris, home of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers, and Brooklyn, with its Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues and kosher diners. Karim Miské’s debut novel excellently translated by Sam Gordon is a good, very ‘real’ read. 

Continue reading Review | Arab Jazz, Karim Miské | MacLehose Press

Review | Dew Angels, Melanie Schwapp | Hope Road Publishing

Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.

At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistress  of her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy.
Continue reading Review | Dew Angels, Melanie Schwapp | Hope Road Publishing

Guest Review | Henrietta Foster | Ludwig’s Room, Alois Hotschnig

Henrietta Foster is a freelance journalist and TV producer for the BBC. Her latest film, Beyond The Grace Note, is about women orchestra conductors. She is writing a book about Hungarian Jews.

Alois Hotschnig sent me a copy of Ludwig’s Room about a year or so ago. Accompanying the book was a postcard of a fearsome blue dragon by Albrecht Dürer, and on the reverse was a greeting in pencil. I mentioned his gift to Tess Lewis, the translator of the book, and that I was very much looking forward to reading it. Quick as a flash an email came back saying that as I had just been through a bad emotional break up, I was not to read the novel under any circumstances – any circumstances whatsoever. It was not a book for the broken-hearted. A little taken aback I did, however, obey my wise and good friend.

A few weeks ago and with some trepidation, I decided that I was now sufficiently robust to bookblast durer dragonread Ludwig’s Room. I was also curious to discover why it would have been so harmful for the recently dumped. Like Dürer’s dragon, it is a spiky, frightening, bleak and at times difficult book to read. But also like Dürer’s mythical beast, it is finely drawn and deceptively engaging. At times, it is very funny in a self-deprecating rather black-humoured way.
Continue reading Guest Review | Henrietta Foster | Ludwig’s Room, Alois Hotschnig

Spotlight | Sex in the nineteenth-century city | Paris, London and the demi-monde

In his planning notes for Nana, the character of which was based on four notorious, pampered prostitutes, Zola describes his novel as being about “a whole society chasing after sex. A pack of hounds following a bitch . . .  The poem of male desire.*”  Nana rises from being a streetwalker to high-class cocotte; her golden tresses and “deadly smile of the man-eater” holding Le Tout Paris in thrall. Zola’s descriptions of her delirious expenditure, rising debts and magnificent, glitzy Hotel Particulier, “which seemed to have been built over an abyss that swallowed up men — along with their worldly possessions, their fortunes, their very names — without leaving even a handful of dust behind them,” foreshadow her vile death rotting in a state of stinking pustulence from smallpox during the last years of the French Second Empire. When it was published the novel was an instant hit, selling nearly 55,000 copies.

In his study of prostitution in Paris published in 1842 — Streetwalkers, Lorettes and Courtesans (Filles, Lorettes et Courtisanes) — Alexandre Dumas shows how going to work on the streets near La Bourse or rue Saint Honoré; on the Grands Boulevards; or in a brothel was more profitable for a lower-class girl than factory work, or shoplifting. Many sold themselves to support their families. Others were servants sacked by their employers, or arrived in the big city from the country having fallen pregnant.
Continue reading Spotlight | Sex in the nineteenth-century city | Paris, London and the demi-monde

Review | Zola vs. The Victorians, Eileen Horne | MacLehose Press

As subdivisions or departments of bigger publishers, imprints break up monolithic companies, give space to individual editors to stamp their list with a defining character and originality, and reassure authors that they are not disappearing into the corporate ether. The MacLehose Press is an independently-minded imprint of Quercus Books, founded by Christopher MacLehose and publishing the very best, often prize-winning, literature from around the world; mainly in translation but with a few outstanding exceptions as English language originals.

Morality is not offended by human truth. It needs to know the real world and to make vice itself a source of wisdom. A novel by Sir Walter Scott may well push a highly strung young girl into the arms of a lover; a sincere study of the passions will no doubt horrify a young girl, but at the same time it will teach her about life and give her moral strength.” So wrote Emile Zola in La Tribune on 9 August, 1868.

Zola the Publisher

When Zola was a young employee at the Parisian publisher Hachette, he came across La Cause du Beau Guillaume (1862) by the novelist and art critic Louis Edmond Duranty, an advocate of the Realist, subsequently renamed Naturalist, cause. In the preface to the 1900 edition, Jean Vaudal  writes: “In the gallery of ancestors which Zola gave to Naturalism, he placed the bust of Duranty on the second shelf, just beneath those of Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert. If but one of them were to be granted the Naturalist label, it would be the author of La Cause du Beau Guillaume.”

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt formulated the doctrine of Naturalism, in 1864: “The novel of today is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present.” Continue reading Review | Zola vs. The Victorians, Eileen Horne | MacLehose Press

Spotlight | Maurice Girodias & Olympia Press | Indie Publishers Remembered

Maurice Girodias writes in his introduction to The Olympia Reader, Grove Press, 1965: “Since my earliest childhood the notion of individual freedom had been deeply rooted in me. Everything I saw or felt as I was growing up turned into a passion — a passion I shared with millions of contemporary Frenchmen, although my own brand drew me toward a form of individualist anarchy while the others usually went toward practical communism or socialism. I resented and hated l’ésprit bourgeois in all its manifestations, but I also distrusted all forms of human association.”

Maurice Girodias, purveyor of some of the best erotic writing ever published which united the obscene and the beautiful, was the son of a French mother and Jewish father from Manchester, “a silver spoonfed infant and a very poor orphan.” Jack Kahane came to Paris in the 1930s and set up the Obelisk Press to publish books in English which, thanks to a loophole in French law, could not be printed in America or England because of censorship. He published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, Anais Nin, Cyril Connolly, a fragment of Joyce’s work in progress, Haveth Childers Everywhere, as a limited edition. The Young and the Evil (1933) by Charles Henri-Ford and Parker Tyler depicted gay life in Harlem and Greenwich and men earning their living there — Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein praised it to the skies. Continue reading Spotlight | Maurice Girodias & Olympia Press | Indie Publishers Remembered

Review | Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov | Landmark BookBlasts™

“Lolita was rejected by four American publishers in 1954; published in Paris by The Olympia Press, September 1955; banned by the French government, December 1956; found “not objectionable” by U. S. Customs, February 1957; back on the market in France after Olympia won their case against the government, January 1958; published in the U. S., August 1958; re-banned in France after the government’s successful appeal against the initial judgment, December 1956; published in French in Paris, April 1959; back on the market in France in English when the government cancelled their own ban after having been sued again by Olympia, September 1959.

THIS EDITION IS THE ORIGINAL, COMPLETE AND UNEXPURGATED PARIS EDITION. IT IS THE ONLY ONE ALLOWED TO BE SOLD IN COUNTRIES OTHER THAN THE U.S.A., U.K. AND COMMONWEALTH.

So reads the back cover blurb of the April 1959 Olympia Press paperback (3rd printing) edition of Lolita. The novel may have a repugnant, discomfiting aura, but oh! how very beautifully Nabokov writes of warped lust and longing, motel sex and middle-America, as he addresses what could be termed a certain Jungian “shadow” side of male human nature. Lolita is an acknowledged classic, and rightly so. Continue reading Review | Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov | Landmark BookBlasts™

Review | Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel | I. B. Tauris

After four years of war, Aleppo is a city in ruins, bombed by the Syrian air force, threatened by ISIL, its population decimated. Bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks are part of daily life. “Rubble and rubbish fill the streets. Looting, hunger and sleepless nights are normal. Medical services have collapsed.” One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, a thousand years of civilization have been reduced to wreckage.

aleppo Philip Mansel writes in his introduction, “Aleppo was a city with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish; Kurdish and Armenian; Christian, Muslim and Jewish. An Arabic-speaking city with a Muslim majority, under the Ottoman Empire Aleppo also became a centre of French culture and Catholic missions. Like many other cities in the region, it mixed East and West, Islam and Christianity. Until 2012 Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously. The reasons for this harmony, and for the current cataclysm, are the subject of this book.” Continue reading Review | Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel | I. B. Tauris

Spotlight | The Russians are Coming? They’re already here! | G de Chamberet

Russia: friend or frenemy? The Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s direct military involvement in the Syrian Civil War are generally reported with an anti-Russian bias. Britain’s phobia has its roots in the 19th century and fear of Russia’s rising power. Today, still, Russia asserting its national interests is presented as an act of blatant aggression. A Cold War mentality lives on. Yet Western militaristic aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya are portrayed as noble moral endeavours, bringing democracy to the unenlightened.

Colin Thubron opens Among the Russians (Picador 1995) with the words: “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember. When I was a boy its mass dominated the map which covered the classroom wall; it was tinted a wan green, I recall, and was distorted by Mercator’s projection so that its tundras suffocated half the world.” Continue reading Spotlight | The Russians are Coming? They’re already here! | G de Chamberet

Spotlight | The Fifties Woman #OnWilderShores @AuthorsClub lunch @MsRachelCooke

The stereotypical view of the fifties woman is reflected in vintage postcards on sale at stalls in Portobello Market, featuring colourful ads for hoovers, OMO, ‘Empire’ baby pants, or Kenwood chef food processors alongside an immaculately dressed housewife with perfect hair and varnished nails beaming a pillarbox-red lipsticked smile as she does the chores.

Rachel Cooke’s book, Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, flies in the face of the clichéd view of the fifties housewife stuck at home ― an appendage to her husband. It may have been the case in American suburbia of the time, but in Britain women had got through the war without their husbands, brothers or fathers. Some had joined the ATS, or WAAF, or WRNS and drove ambulances, or worked in a government ministry. Others ended up at Bletchley Park. When Elisa Segrave came upon her late mother’s diaries, she discovered that her mother had excelled at her work as an indexer in Hut 3, then in Hut 3N, at Bletchley Park, from 1941-43; and was promoted to 4th Naval Duty Officer during Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa. She had several jobs in Bomber Command and later saw its effects in the ruined towns of Germany where she had her last job in the WAAF. On her days off she travelled in a weapon carrier with her American boyfriend. The Girl From Station X is an illuminating read.

The war had a liberating effect: women were hardly about to exchange their newfound freedom in peacetime for baking cakes and a life cushioned by nappies. Cooke stressed how the old and the new were pulling against each other in fifties Britain, which was on the cusp of modernity ― heralding the sixties. Women were expected to settle down, marry and have kids, yet having had a taste of freedom,  they wanted to do their own thing and be independent. The way women today juggle home and career and feel guilty about it was not the case then, when women just went for it and did not consider the consequences. The term ‘latchkey kid’ dates from the fifties. Continue reading Spotlight | The Fifties Woman #OnWilderShores @AuthorsClub lunch @MsRachelCooke