Wednesday 31 December 2014

Recommended read for any returning volunteer

The Book of Strange New Things


Michel Faber

I loved his short novella The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps (see my review).

This is Faber’s first novel in 14 years and sadly it looks like he isn’t going to write another. I say sadly because this one had me with the first chapter – Peter and Bea are en route the Heathrow where Peter is flying to Houston and then onwards, on some evangelical religious mission, leaving Bea at home with Joshua, their cat. You know instantly how well this couple work together on emotional, social and sexual level, presumably a marriage of a reasonable length and intensity, although no kids and presumably still young enough to follow your faith into the wilds.

But the wilds you expect are not the wilds of the story. As Peter continues his travel south to Florida we realise we are in a time when “astronaut” is an old fashioned word, where a faceless global corporation USIC controls so much and has hired Peter after a series of medicals and probing questions which reminded me of VSO initial assessment interviews. Then as the nurse injects him with something he and we are relocated to “Oasis”. (Plenty of the book critics write ups indicate where this is, but I think it is way better to find this out as you read this book)

The growing rift in Peter and Bea’s understanding of each other’s changing circumstances during Peter’s period of time in oasis has the destruction of the earth and the disintegration of society as we know it as its backdrop. This book is about Peter discovering what is and isn’t the most important in his life, and for him as a religious being seeing that his god works it so that he can give up on one and find his way back to the other.

I am just amazed at how personal this book was to me as a reader. Not only did the writing about Peter’s interview remind me of my VSO initial assessment interview and its probing personal questions, but Peter’s experiences of cultural adaptation to the Oasian landscape and culture reminded me of my own cultural adaptation as a VSO volunteer. In the section where Peter describes being present at the birth  of new life, being welcomed and being part of the celebration and yet without enough local language to be more involved in it reminded me of Indian Bharat Ghara I attended and amazing experience even when only partially understood. Also one of the final scenes has Peter speaking in the local language to his parishioners, a moving moment, as he struggles for a translation for the most vital of words, forgive. I think so many aspects of and scenes in this story will ring true to anyone who has remained for any length of time in a foreign culture. This is the only thing I have ever read which truly understands what such people go through, the ties and the tugs, the things you miss from home and the things you miss from there, and how it effects you.

ashramblings verdict 5* Tremendous book. A must read one which I suspect will be with me for way long after the physical book has been returned to the Library.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Potential in miniature

The Miniaturist


Jessie Burton

The story is set in 1686’s Amsterdam, Nella, a 18-year-old country girl with good lineage and has just married wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, two decades her senior, following the death of her father who left his widow with debts and two younger children to take care of. The marriage was arranged, conducted in a simple fashion, without family from Johannes’ side. The groom leaves immediately afterwards on business, leaving the marriage unconsummated. Some time later Nella finally arrives at the Brandt house to find it occupied also by a sharp stern sister, Marin, used to being mistress of the household, involved in and knowledgeable about his business affairs, a maid, Cornelia, and an African man-servant, Otto. Her husband gives her a wedding present of a cabinet, which is in essence a dollhouse. She hires a miniaturist to make pieces for the house that reproduces in miniature every room in the Brandt home.

This is Jessie Burton’s first novel and her story maintains the readers interest even though some aspects are immediately obvious before they are exposed, such as the reason for Johannes lack of occupation of the marital bed, but others are perhaps less so, for example, Marin’s story. It is a promising read – it promises an intricate tapestry of life within a wealthy merchant household in old Amsterdam, it promises interesting parallels between the real house and the dollhouse with its miniature inhabitants, it promises a story of Nella’s adaptation to her new life and environment, it promises an exploration of gender, race, class, power within the merchant elite. However, it delivers only partially, so much is not said, so much is not explained, so much is not explored – I wanted to hear more about Cornelia’s history, more detail about Marin’s story (I am trying here not to give anything away as this is the best twist in the tale),  more about the developing depth of the conversations between Nella and Johannes, more about the how’s and why’s behind the  Miniaturist’s gift of prediction (after all that is the title of the book!). For me, these are skimmed over too quickly. It is potentially a very good story and in the hands of a great script writer and film director will I am absolutely sure make a great film, akin to The Girl with the Pearl Earring, perhaps. Having said all that, it is an enjoyable read.

ashramblings verdict 3* an enjoyable read, a promising first novel from a young author with huge potential, and a great film waiting to be made.

Monday 22 December 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Dear friends, I hope you are enjoying reading my ashramblings blog and facebook page posts throughout 2014.

Your continued acceptance of no birthday cards/presents, no postcards, no Christmas cards/presents has meant support not only for MFS (Medecins Sans Frontiers) this year (see below) but also Eritrean refugees via my friend's organisation, education for slum children in Rayagada, in Orissa, via Shakti the Indian NGO I worked with , Stephen Sutton’s tremendous fundraising for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Best wishes for 2015!





Excellent, well crafted, political satire

The Fall of the Stone City


Ismail Kadare

translated by John Hodgson


This book was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013 and Kadare won the International Man Booker Prize in 2005. A prolific author in his home country of Albania, I admit to knowing nothing about him or his work.  The Paris Review has an interview with him in their Art of Fiction series, and James Wood  has written a review  of his work for the New Yorker .

Ismail KadarĂ© was born in the city of Gjirokaster where this novel begins in the midst of WW2. With the fall of Italy and the advance of the German army the city remains curiously aloof or these worldly matters focussing instead on the rivalry between two doctors – German educated Big Dr Gurameto and Italian educated Little Dr Gurameto. As the German army approaches it is fired on. The Germans advance threatening to blow up the city, but a white flag is seen (or was it a white curtain blowing out through an open window?) and they advance without destruction, instead taking hostages in reprisal. The German commander, Col. Fritz von Schwabe,  traces down his old school friend Big Dr Gurameto and is invited to dinner and the Dr manages to get the hostages released, including Jakoel the Jew. This first part of the novel is told with reference to the traditional honour, pride and culture of Albania with undercurrents, visible every now and then amidst the reunion of old friends, of the violence to come.

The second part of the novel is set in 1944 – 1953, when the Enver Hoxha  regime had taken power and the old values are being replaced by the new. The new power does strange thing – digging unnecessary ditches, renaming streets. The seemingly trivial commissioning new songs and the banning old ones results in the suicide of the culture minister for nostalgic behaviour, Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr. Gurameto have been jailed multiple times, but always released and reinstated into their medical practices,  then  finally the new state apparatus turns on the establishment fabric of the old city and the epitome of its culture, namely its ladies. I adored the comic irreverence of the story if their downfall – these well bred, delicate, closeted women are killed off by being address as Comrade!  But all these rumbles of change are but a comic interlude before the nightmare really kicks in.

The third part of the novel is set in 1953 at the time of the death of Stalin. The two Drs are prisoners in the Cave of Sanisha prison, a medieval dungeon once used by the Ottomans for torturing prisoners. Big Dr Gurameto is interrogated and tortured, accused of being part of a plot by Jewish doctors to kill world leaders including Stalin. The fateful dinner of the first part of the novel comes back into the doctors plot story and into the interrogation when it materialises that the German commander was not Col. Fritz von Schwabe who had died but an imposter.  First the Albanian inquisitor, than the East German one concluded that Gurameto is telling the truth when he says he knows nothing about the plot. But when finally a Moscow interrogator  arrives, it is truth which is the first casualty. All that is required is a confession. Each time the interrogators’ distorted expectations transform the dinner story into something more, and more grotesque until all that is left at the end is Big Dr’s corpse.

Kadare’s  story is a mixing of history and facts with myth and fairy tales. For example, he uses the old Albanian tale of a dead man who accepts an invitation to dinner, and the one about the rape of Sanisha, the sister of the Ottoman vizier Ali Pasha Tepelena, and his terrible revenge. In the middle of his writing he stops and announces that he, as narrator, is just about to tell us what actually happened, but even then what he starts to say poses more questions than answers (what did happen to Little Dr Gurameto?) . Kadare’s blend of  literary and historical worlds has Kafkaesque moments, humorous moments, and a deft political irony.

ashramblings verdict 4*  Excellent tragic comic satire of the inhuman senselessness of a tyrannical dictatorship.

Friday 19 December 2014

Fuentes does Faust



Carlos Fuentes

Can a reader truly understand a book which is so dependent upon a piece of music which she doesn’t know? I pose this question to myself early on in my reading of this novel and again at the end when I find myself none the wiser and still not being able to answer the question. I am left with a feeling that this is a better novel than I, lacking in awareness of the music piece, am able to appreciate.

The ageing European conductor Gabriel Altan-Ferrara is about to undertake his final performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a piece of music that has been forever associated with him and with the love of his life, the red-headed Mexican singer, Inez Prada. They had first met in the 1940 London Blitz, then again in Mexico City in late 1940s, then in the Swinging 60s in London where they produced a dramatic production of the work. There relationship, on and off stage, was intermittent and passionate – he in control of her on stage, she in control of him in bed. Both are ambitious artists: together they create a sensation on stage, separated in life they wallow in memory and regret.

Alongside this narrative there is a parallel one retelling a creation myth of the meeting of early man and woman, neh-el and ah-nel. Fuentes makes their discovery of language into a song, into music. This primeval love affair and the modern one merge in a moment when Inez, ah-nel and Marguerite (the operatic character being sung by Inez) become one in an incredibly visual operatic scene ( which I’d love to see filmed) conducted of course by Altan-Ferrera, long black hair flowing like a handsome Faustian Lothario.

This short novel (150 pages) is an intricate exploration of love, art, beauty, death, colonisation, a reworking of the Faust story where Faust sells his soul to the devil for glory and power. It does leave me considering who exactly is portrayed by  the brother we never see except in a photograph which clearly has an impact in Inez when she first sees it and may even be the reason why she  brushes of Altan-Ferrara’s initial attentions – is this the real man, the pure one, not the one who sold his soul, the “other” European who did not colonise? I am also not at all sure about role of the child in the merging of the women and the female genital mutilation aspect to the primitive narrative. Nonetheless, I am very pleased I read this book, confirming once again my love of Latin American writers and their magical take on story telling making the reader’s imagination work to find a satisfying experience in her readership.

ashramblings verdict 3* A short, stimulating and intriguing intertwining of two love affair narratives, probably made all the better for knowing about the operatic storyline.

Friday 12 December 2014

The tongue’s blood does not run dry: Algerian stories by Assia Djebar

The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry: Algerian Stories

by Assia Djebar

Translated by Tegan Raleigh

 “When you come back to Oran, you are running; when you leave it , you are fleeing!”  Algerian proverb

This is a  collection of short stories in 2 parts: Part One: Algeria: between desire and death, Part Two between France and Algeria. Together they explore the realities of how war tears countries and families apart as they struggle for independence or with civil war and how this struggle impacts the lives of ordinary people. Pawns in the games of war, the lives of women and ultimately their bodies become the debris of the fighting and are strewn across the landscape, across meaningless geographical and political borders.

I have read that her writings are inspired by the stories of Algerian woman who had fled to Paris. Reading them today makes one think not only about the historical times which the author is writing about (All the stories were written in 1995 and 1996—a time when over 200,000 Algerians were killed in Islamist assassinations and government army reprisals) but of Syria today where we see news photographs of the fighting above ground and the old, the young and the women in their subterranean shelters trying to survive and can only imagine what it was like before such conditions became the everyday norm.

For example, “Oran, Dead Language” tells the story of an Algerian woman in France writing to her Sardinian friend Olivia to explain that she is going back home to Oran to await the death and funeral of her mother’s sister who brought her up after her parents, trade union activists who were assassinated in the lead up to the country's 1962 Independence.

The Attack”  tells the story of the relationship between a mother and her son as he continues to write opposition pieces for publication under his own name and is finally gunned down in front of her in the street

In “The Woman in Pieces”  the author interweaves a Scheherazade story from the classic 1001 Arabian Nights about a mysterious woman found cut up into pieces inside a roll of carpet with the story of a French Professor using it in her class studying the differences between the French translation and the Arabic original. She is murdered and decapitated for teaching obscene stories in front of her class.

Annie and Fatima” are mother and daughter, divorced parents, separated between France and Algeria. Annie has not seen her daughter for 9 years as she lives with her father. Taking advantage of law changes, she begins to learn Berber at night school in order to be able to talk to Fatima when she visits for the first time.

ashramblings verdict 3*: This is a challenging read – making us to contemplate a time and situation most people in the UK would know little about, whilst hoping we never have to experience any of the experiences the woman of these stories had to go through.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Unleashing the silent scream of environmental pollution

The Iron Woman


Ted Hughes

This is the sequel to his previous book The Iron Man which I read earlier.

Lucy is befriended by the Iron Woman who has emerged from the marshes intending to take revenge for the pollution of the waterways. Lucy hears about this and its impact on the wildlife and goes to confront the manager of the Waste Factory about it. She finds that when she she touches people they begin to hear the screams of the animals being poisoned and killed by the pollution.

Iron Woman turns all the men into various fish, newts, frogs etc. which their families have to keep alive in baths, swimming pools, ponds. The men-animals fight back by burping up black bubbles that coalesce into a giant Cloud Spider which proclaims itself to be the Spider-god of wealth "I am the Spider-god of gain. The spider-god of winning at all costs.  I catch the prize in my net." As Iron Man and Iron Woman battle the The Cloud Spider, it is eventually conquered and taken away by the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon from the first novel.

All the men are returned, but everyone of them now has white hair  - “Big, deep fright, Big, deep change” says Iron Woman – and a mysterious yellow net is found draped over every rubbish heap and every stack of poisonous chemicals. After a few nights all these waste piles disappear and the Waste Factory disposal of its materials into the water supply can cease

ashramblings review 3* Stronger in style, with more symbolism and a stronger environmental message than Iron Man, this is again a lovely gem of a children’s book.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Here, there and everyone

Here and there, now here and now

captured still, in forgotten photographs,

sepia edged mementos of days gone bye.

Dog-eared, brow-beaten, weathered yellow,

passed from pillar to post,

from hand to hand,

by family, by friends, by lovers, by strangers.

The box of photos fell to me

to unravel its mysteries

to trace my ancestry

like a child joining the dots

reveals the tree’s connections.


Here a death, there a birth,

a marriage made, a census recorded,

a migration there

and back.

Poverty, cholera and famine

drove the routes travelled,

the roots made,

till finally it was laid to rest with me.

© Sheila Ash, 2014

Friday 5 December 2014

Villain to hero: The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

The Iron Man: A Children's Story in Five Nights


Ted Hughes,

Illustrated by Tom Gauld

Browsing the library shelves for inspiration in particular some short reads to fill a gap before several books I have on order arrive, I stumbled across this little gem. I never knew Ted Hughes had written books for children, and this kid at heart was spellbound for the short time it took me to read this modern fairy tale of the metal eating giant.

I loved the way they found a way to live in harmony after their fearful and antagonist start to their sharing of the earth, and how in the second half of the story the villain of this peaceful coexistence is changed into hero for all the world. All the best elements of a good yarn -  wonder, suspense, moral stance, and victory for good.

I found on YouTube this fun animation by school kids who clearly love the story as much a I did, and this audio recording of the whole story.

ashramblings verdict 4*: simply gorgeous , I’d have loved this as a bedtime read or Christmas morning story book.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Epistrophy at its best

The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

I came across the concept of an epistrophe recently when reading Eduardo Halfon’s novel  The Polish Boxer (see my post). Webster’s Dictionary defines epistrophe as repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect (as Lincoln's “of the people, by the people, for the people”) . This is a technique that I have seen employed effectively in a novel or short story only a few times – I think of Tim O’Brien’s story The Things They Carried in which he lists al the things carried by a foot soldier during the Vietnam War. Otsuka uses it relentlessly throughout the whole of her superb second novel. Her writing style of short concise sentences seen in her first novel When the Emperor Was Divine is maintained here, but absolutely comes into its own here creating a distinctive rhythm to the book as time marches relentless forward from the sense of expectant uncertainty of the first chapter’s arrival of the women to the penultimate chapters fearful exodus into uncertainty of whole families and generations. The chapters of the novel are entitled “Come, Japanese”, “First Night”, “Babies”, “The Children” , “Traitors”, “Last Day”, “A Disappearance” : they are landmarks in the chronology these early twentieth century mail order brides from their boat trip across the Pacific to unknown Japanese husbands waiting for them in the USA up to their disappearance from the streets and life of America after the outbreak of WW2 and the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

ashramblings verdict 5* : this is a tour de force in combining the real experiences of these Japanese immigrants in one  collective story whilst allowing the overall sense to ring true whilst maintaining the individuality of participants, their range of experiences of at each of these landmarks in their lives. 

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Judge not others by who they appear to be

When The Emperor Was Divine


Julie Otsuka

Unsentimental story of a Japanese American family from California, split up and interned during WW2. The father is taken away in his slippers, interrogated and interned in Texas: the mother, daughter and son have time to pack before being interned in a camp in the deserts of Utah.

In a matter of fact way Otsuka tells the story which must have been the same for many Japanese Americans in that time. Her style of short simple sentences, makes this short book (144pg) a rapid read, but they also convey the monotony, boredom and hardship of their lives - the mother clinging onto her house door key, trying to maintain her sanity and self respect, the children growing up in their 3+ years away, their dreams of their father’s return, the short, censored letters back and forth to him. All these things pace out their time in limbo.

Their eventual return to their old home after their time away sees it, luckily, still standing, albeit in a poor state, trashed inside and without the promised rental income from the agent in who care they had left it. Their adjustment back is just as difficult as their adjustment going. Things are not as they dreamt they would be. The house is filthy, the neighbours antagonistic or ignoring, their 25USD ( the same as a prisoner’s release money) doesn’t go far and the woman struggles to find work. Their father returns an old man and never readjusts. Powerful passages showing the various roles the Japanese Americans held before the war and the resultant subservient stance imposed on them afterwards by their experiences, treatment and survival.

ashramblings verdict 3* an incredibly sad story, all the more sad as it records the collective experience of a generation in a shameful part of the history of the USA.