David Almond: Skellig (1998)

Skellig

I often think that the best books for children are not just books for a particular age group but timeless tales for any age. Just think of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book but it is so much more. And so is Skellig, David Almond’s wondrous, lyrical novel of love and healing.

Skellig combines a mundane story with something magical and mysterious. Michael is ten years old when his family moves into a new house. His baby sister is very ill and there’s no telling whether she will survive.

One afternoon Michael enters the dilapidated garage at the end of the garden and discovers a strange being. It looks like a shrivelled man, covered in spiders and cobwebs. Is it an old man? Is it a bird? Is it an angel?

Michael is traumatized by the events at home, by the constant fear his baby sister might die, and his parent’s decide to keep him at home. One day, after he has discovered the strange being, he meets Mina. Mina shows him a world he didn’t know. Her mother, a free-spirit who doesn’t believe in schools, teaches Mina at home. Mina knows a lot about evolution and birds and painting; she loves to draw and quotes William Blake.

Her mother teaches her many things other children learn at school but she also teaches her a sense of wonder Together the two children find out who or what Skellig is.

Skellig is such a magical book. Lyrical, spiritual and philosophical, but very realistic too. It’s an elusive book, that is hard to describe without breaking its spell. It’s a story of love and loss, grief and joy, inspired by tales of angels, the evolution of birds and William Blake. Every reader interprets Skellig in another way. After I finished it I’m still not sure what Skellig is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to feel how inspired David Almond was when he wrote this novel. Skellig is pure magic; an image, a deeply haunting feeling, that carries a truth that predates words. I think it took courage to write a book like this and to leave so many questions unanswered. David Almond seems to have been sure that even if we didn’t “get it” intellectually, we would still be able to understand it on an emotional level. I really love that.

Even if you don’t normally pick up children’s books – don’t miss Skellig.

Here’s a quote that will give you an idea of the writing:

“Let me sleep,” squeaked Skellig. “Let me go home.”

He lay facedown and his wings continued to quiver into shape above him. We drew the blankets up beneath them, felt his feathers against the skin on the backs of our hands. Soon Skellig’s breathing settled and he slept. Whisper rested against him, purring.

We stare at each other. My hand trembled as I reached out toward Skellig’s wings. I touched them with my fingertips. I rested my palms on them. I felt the feathers, and beneath them the bones and sinews and muscles that supported them. I felt the crackle of Skellig’s breathing.

I tiptoed to the shutters and stared out through the narrow chinks.

“What you doing?” she whispered.

“Making sure the world’s still really there,” I said.

German Literature Month – Some Plans and Suggestions

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Although I don’t really stick to my plans these days, I was still tempted to make a list of possible choices for German Literature Month because in the past years my lists helped others find books. I’ll attempt to read a mix of translated and not yet translated books but all by authors known in the English-speaking world.

Walter Benjamin

I started to read Walter Benjamin’s essay collection Denkbilder. Many of the essays can be found in the collection Reflections. Benjamin was a philosopher, essayist, memoirist and modernist writer, who tragically took his own life in 1940, in France, when he knew he wouldn’t be able to escape the Nazis. He has written a lot of influential books like The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Tonio Kröger

Another classic, Thomas Mann’s novella of a young artist, Tonio Kröger.

The Tongue Set Free

Another modernist writer and memoirist, just like Walter Benjamin. Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free is a childhood memoir, written in a dense poetic prose.

Aller Liebe Anfang

Judith Hermann has just published her fourth book. I loved her two short story collections and appreciated Alice and now I’m curious to find out how much I’ll like her novel which just came out in Germany.

The Giraffe's Neck

I bought Judith Schalansky’s The Giraffe’s Neck when it was published in Germany, two years ago. Now it has finally been  translated.

Here’s the blurb

Adaptation is everything, something Frau Lomark is well aware of as the biology teacher at the Charles Darwin High School in a country backwater of the former East Germany. It is the beginning of the new school year, but, as people look west in search of work and opportunities, its future begins to be in doubt.

Frau Lohmark has no sympathy for her pupils and scorns indulgent younger teachers who talk to their students as peers, play games with them, or (worse) even go so far as to have ‘favourites’. A strict devotee of the Darwinian principle of evolution, Frau Lohmark believes that only the best specimens of a species are fit to succeed. But now everything and everyone resists the old way of things and Inge Lohmark is forced to confront her most fundamental lesson: she must adapt or she cannot survive.

Written with cool elegance and humane irony, The Giraffe’s Neck is an exquisite revelation of a novel, and what the novel can do, that will resonate in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned.

The Glory of Life

Michael Kumpfmüller has already published a few novels to high acclaim. Some have been translated. The Glory of Life is his latest book and tells the story of Kafka’s last year, during which he fell in love with Dora Diamant. I started reading it and the writing is luminous and lyrical.

Tabu

The translation of Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest novel Tabu – The Girl Who Wasn’t There will be published in January. He’s another author whose every book I tend to read.

Sebastian von Eschburg, scion of a wealthy, self-destructive family, survived his disastrous childhood to become a celebrated if controversial artist. He casts a provocative shadow over the Berlin scene; his disturbing photographs and installations show that truth and reality are two distinct things.

When Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman and the police investigation takes a sinister turn, seasoned lawyer Konrad Biegler agrees to represent him – and hopes to help himself in the process. But Biegler soon learns that nothing about the case, or the suspect, is what it appears. The new thriller from the acclaimed author of The Collini CaseThe Girl Who Wasn’t There is dark, ingenious and irresistibly gripping.

Essays

I’ve almost finished this collection of Ferdinand von Schirach’s essays. Some are interesting, some, like the one of smoking, annoyed me quite a bit, but overall they are worth reading.

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Since I’m hosting a Joseph Roth Week I’ll be reading at least two of his novels. One of them is our readalong title Flight Without End.

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

The Emperor's Tomb

The Emperor’s Tomb might be the second choice.

The Emperor’s Tomb is a magically evocative, haunting elegy to the vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to the passing of time and the loss of youth and friends. Prophetic and regretful, intuitive and exact, Roth’s acclaimed novel is the tale of one man’s struggle to come to terms with the uncongenial society of post-First World War Vienna and the first intimations of Nazi barbarities.

The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner is a German crime author whose books are set in Finland. A very unique mix. I’m reading the third in his Kimmo Joentaa series The Winter of the Lions and like it so much, I already got another one. I’m particularly fond of the writing. It’s so sparse and dry. Decidedly more literary than mainstream.

Every year since the tragic death of his wife, Detective Kimmo Joentaa has prepared for the isolation of Christmas with a glass of milk and a bottle of vodka to arm himself against the harsh Finnish winter. However, this year events take an unexpected turn when a young woman turns up on his doorstep.

Not long afterwards two men are found murdered, one of whom is Joentaa’s colleague, a forensic pathologist. When it becomes clear that both victims had recently been guests on Finland’s most famous talk show, Kimmo is called upon to use all his powers of intuition and instinct to solve the case. Meanwhile the killer is lying in wait, ready to strike again…

In Kimmo Joentaa, prizewinning author Jan Costin Wagner has created a lonely hero in the Philip Marlowe mould, who uses his unusual gifts for psychological insight to delve deep inside the minds of the criminals he pursues.

Silence

Silence is Wagner’s second Kimmo Joentaa novel.

A young girl disappears while cycling to volleyball practice. Her bike is found in exactly the same place that another girl was murdered, thirty-three years before. The original perpetrator was never brought to justice – could they have struck again? The eeriness of the crime unsettles not only the police and public, but also someone who has been carrying a burden of guilt for many years…

Detective Kimmo Joentaa calls upon the help of his older colleague Jetola, who worked on the original murder, in the hope that they can solve both cases. But as their investigation begins, Kimmo discovers that the truth is not always what you expect.

Ghost Knight

I’m also tempted by Cornelia Funke’s ghost story Ghost Knight, set in and around Salisbury Cathedral.

Eleven-year-old Jon Whitcroft never expected to enjoy boarding school. He never expected to be confronted by a pack of vengeful ghosts either. And then he meets Ella, a quirky new friend with a taste for adventure…

Together, Jon and Ella must work to uncover the secrets of a centuries-old murder, while being haunted by ghosts intent on revenge. So when Jon summons the ghost of the late knight Longspee for his protection, there’s just one question – can Longspee really be trusted? A thrilling tale of bravery, friendship – and ghosts!

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These are the plans for the translated authors/books, but I might also read some of those that haven’t been translated yet, like Keto von Waberer.

Have you read any of these books? What are you’re plans?

On Ketil Bjørnstad’s De udødelige (The Immortals) – Norwegian Author and Composer

Ketil Bjornstad

Two months ago I went to a book shop and, on a table displaying books in German translation, I found a novel written by Ketil Bjørnstad. I’d not heard of him before, which isn’t surprising, as only two of his novels have been translated into German so far. None has made it into English. There are a few available in French though. Still, it’s a huge loss because Bjørnstad is one of those multi-talented authors that are so fascinating. Not only has he written far over 20 novels, but also poetry and essay collections, and he is a famous musician and composer.

The novel I bought is called De udødelige (The Immortals – Die Unsterblichen). It was published in Oslo in 2011. The main character, Thomas Brenner, a general practitioner is one of the most complex characters I’ve come across in recent literature. He’s sensitive, kind, a born caregiver, who is acutely aware of other’s needs. But there’s another layer, buried deep within him— guilty feelings and cowardice. As much as he wants to help, it drags him down, frustrates him, and angers him that he has to give endlessly. Brenner is an example of what I’ve seen called the “sandwich generation”, the generation who has to care simultaneously for their children and their elderly parents, drawn by both sites into opposite directions, exhausting their strength and financial means.

The key plot element is his wife’s, upcoming 6oth birthday. And a planned trip to Chicago, the home of Saul Bellow, his wife’s favourite author. The success of the birthday party is threatened and overshadowed by many things. Brenner has heart problems and he’s pretty sure his wife, Elisabeth, is hiding health problems of her own. His mother, who is over 90, has to go to a nursing home, while his father stays at home, getting more demanding every day. Elisabeth’s parents live in the same house, and so does their older daughter Annika. She’s almost 30, but still not capable to make money and unwilling to move out. All these things burden Thomas, but he doesn’t want to confront anyone. He has to be pushed into a corner before he says anything unpleasant to anyone, even if this behaviour costs him his own health and happiness in the end. His wife Elisabeth isn’t much different. She has even stopped working a few years ago to look after her parents who don’t even thank her for this.

Brenner is a very sensitive, introspective man. And aware of hist shortcomings. He knows, he’s a coward, he knows that his kindness is to some degree weakness. He hasn’t learned how “to be cruel to be kind”.

Many of his Brenner’s thoughts circle around the so-called immortals— very old people who simply don’t want to die or change the way they live and are kept alive endlessly thanks to modern medicine. (The quote is taken from the author’s page)

My God, he thought, there were patients who had been living in nursing homes for over 15 years. They never died, because their lives were always saved by anticoagulants and heart medications. Their bodies could be disintegrating, but their hearts kept on beating. Even if their memories had vanished, what did not vanish was their agitation and anxiety, their restless wandering from room to room in the hope of finding peace, finding a home, finding a person, a Jesus or a God who could both comfort them and explain everything to them.

That these older people, like Elisabeth’s mother, cling to their old way of life, infuriates him. At the same time he feels deeply ashamed for thinking so and is happy that, in some cases, others take things into their hands. If it wasn’t for the authorities, Elisabeth’s mother, who is over 90 and not able to hold a steering wheel anymore, would still be driving. The older she gets, the more stubborn she becomes.

The Immortals is a timely book, one that addresses contemporary problems without dressing them up in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian horror scenario. Thomas Brenner’s life is one that many people live, especially the quiet ones who hardly ever complain but suffer in silence. Those who abuse them never even wonder what it means for them to be at their service constantly. I felt a lot of compassion while reading this. But I was sad for his children and his parents too. The daughters and the parents were filled with anxiety, feeling helpless and dependent. Caring for the ever-growing number of very old, frail people is a problem for our whole society. Not everyone can stop working and take care. I suppose we will see this intensify because more and more people have their children very late in life, which means many might be in their forties, while their parents are already well over 80.

I’m not sure this book will be translated, although I wish it will. The writing is light and subtle. With only a few sentences Bjørnstad captures a mood, an atmosphere. Brenner feels deeply at all times, is always honest to himself; listening to his thoughts, is like listening to a good friend. The end of the novel, which takes place in Chicago, is radical. I didn’t see it coming and I’m not going to forget it soon.

Luckily, music needs no translation and so all of those who will not be able to discover this sensitive author, may at least get a taste of his wonderful music.

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey (1847)

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Last year I read all the Jane Austen novels I hadn’t read yet. This year I wanted to do the same with the Brontë novels. Agnes Grey was one of those I hadn’t read yet. Unfortunately starting my project with this book wasn’t a good choice. I found it so dark, I don’t think I’ll pick up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall any day soon, nor Villette or Shirley. Don’t get me wrong, I did expect a bleak story as I knew the book was based on Anne Brontës experience as a governess; an experience that was so negative that it led to her writing of Agnes Grey, hoping it would raise awareness and maybe help change a few things for future governesses. The description of the loneliness and social isolation of a governess were bound to be depressing but what really got to me are the many instances of cruelty against animals. I didn’t see that coming and really struggled through this novel. All the negative characters in this book—children and grownups alike— share a common trait— they see themselves as superior. If they think they are superior to other human beings, how much more must they feel superior to animals? Descriptions of torturing birds, hitting and kicking cats and dogs abound, and turned reading this novel into a nightmare. There’s even an instance in which Agnes, who loves animals, crushes a bird’s nest, to save the small birds from being tortured. Awful!

The book begins with the description of Agnes Grey’s childhood. Unlike most other Brontë heroines, she has a happy childhood and loving parents. They are not very rich but live comfortably until the day when her father loses everything due to an unfortunate investment. There is no urgent need for the two Grey girls to work, but Agnes would like to help her parents financially and decides to become a governess. Thanks to a reference from an acquaintance, she soon finds employment, although she’s only 19 years old and doesn’t have a lot of qualifications.

Her first employment is with the Bloomfields. Agnes knows it will be hard to live far away from her family and that she won’t be able to see them more than once a year. She is sure that her time away will not be easy but she didn’t expect she would be so miserable. Not only is she treated like a servant, but the children of the family are monstrous. They kick and scream and rebel. They are so badly behaved, only a very strong hand would be able to tame them. At the same time they are spoilt and Agnes isn’t even allowed to raise her voice, let alone punish them. She is shocked. She didn’t even knew that children could be like this. One boy in particular is very nasty and enjoys torturing small animals.

After a year she leaves the Bloomfield family and finds new employment with the Murrays. The children are slightly better behaved. There are four of them, two boys and two girls. Luckily the boys are sent away and Agnes does only have to teach the two girls. They are not interested in learning anything and treat Agnes just like their parents: condescending and as if she was a slave. One of the girls is a nasty piece of work. She’s very beautiful and uses her looks to manipulate and flirt. It’s her biggest joy to refuse and humiliate the men who fall in love with her. When she becomes aware that Agnes is interested in the curate Mr Weston, she tries to seduce him as well.

I can understand that people at the time were shocked when they read the book. I wasn’t shocked about Agnes’ treatment, because I knew that governesses had a hard life, due to their awkward situation. They come from the same class as their employers but they have no money and are forced to work. Because they have to work they are seen as inferior, at the same time they are not accepted by the servants because their social class and education places them above. It’s hard to imagine how lonely and helpless these women must have felt.

What shocked me as a modern reader is not so much that they didn’t accept Agnes as one of their own, but how mean and nasty those children were. How spoilt and misbehaved. They were as cruel and mean to Agnes as they were to their animals. They made her suffer on purpose, played tricks on her, disobeyed constantly, had no interest in anything.

If this was what poor Anne Brontë had to endure it’s quite appalling. I don’t know why any parents would have put up with such behaviour. These children have not the tiniest feeling for good and bad, no morals at all. They know what’s socially acceptable, and act accordingly, but only as long as it brings them some benefit or other.

What I found  most disturbing are the scenes among the destitute and the poor. Many rich girls and women did (and still do) charity work. The Murray girls are no exception. They visit the poor, bring things and money but they are never good or kind. They have been taught to give but they do so condescendingly, while Agnes spends time with them, reads for them or just sits and chats with them.

The end felt a bit like wish fulfilment. In a way you could say that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

I can see why Agnes Grey isn’t as famous as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Nor why it is not as well-known as Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I found it interesting but dry and shocking. It’s not very descriptive and the character’s voice lacked life. I suspect, should I go on with my Brontë project, that this will remain my least favourite of their novels.

Have you read Agnes Grey? What did you think of it?

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

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I’m slowly reading all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. I just love the way he combines the familiar with the uncanny and Coraline, a deliciously creepy tale, is one of the best examples of this ability. I often think I already know a Neil Gaiman story or novel when I begin reading it, but then, all of sudden, half-way in, he twists the story and what seemed like something I’ve read before turns into a new and highly original tale.

Reading Coraline reminded me of the discovery of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book and it also reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Only the land that Coraline explores isn’t a wonderland, it’s dark, creepy territory.

Coraline is a small girl who has moved into a new apartment with her parents. The apartment is in a big, old house, surrounded by a vast garden. In the apartment below Coraline’s live two former actresses, in the apartment above, an old man who pretends to have a mouse circus.

Coraline is bored. The family moved in during the school holidays and Coraline has no friends in the new neighbourhood yet. Her parents are kind but always busy and distracted. At times it seems they wouldn’t even notice if Coraline was gone.

Then Coraline discovers the door and through that door she enters a reversed world. It’s the same apartment house, the same people live in it. Only things seem more beautiful at first. There are doubles of her parents and they are much more attentive. There’s a black cat that can speak. It’s the same black cat Coraline saw in her own world, only there it wasn’t able to talk.

When Coraline notices that the eyes of the other mother and father are made of buttons, and when she realizes that the other mother wants her to stay, she knows this world is a sinister place.

Will she be able to return to her own world? Will the black cat help her? And what about those ghost children? Will Coraline be able to free them?

What I loved best about Coraline, is how it got darker and darker towards the end. At first it seems a simple tale of a lonely girl finding another, better world that looks almost identical to her own, but then, slowly, she discovers more and more unsettling elements— rats who carry keys, snow globes with little people in it, button eyes, dead children and a lot more. The best element comes towards the end. Unfortunately I can’t write about it, or I would spoil the fun of reading it for the first time.

There is one thing that bothered me though. I’m not fond of black cats in fantasy novels, especially not when they have a few negative traits. This one is a helper but it has a lot of creepy characteristics too. There are too many countries that are superstitious of black cats, and, as long as this is the case, I find the use of black cats highly problematic. Halloween is upcoming, and, like every year – it’s a terrible time in many places for black cats. I would have wished he’d not used a black cat.

I wrote at the beginning that Gaiman combines familiar and unfamiliar elements. He uses stories we all know, but he also combines realistic descriptions of everyday life with fantastical elements. Coraline’s boredom, the way her parents treat her —kindly but without fully acknowledging her — is done very realistically.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but now, with the weather turning more autumnal, I feel like watching it soon.

 

Literature and War Readalong October 31 2014: Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey

Phoenix and Ashes

Admittedly, this was a bit of an experimental choice for the Literature and War Readalong, but since this year is mostly dedicated to WWI, I thought some diversity would be nice. So why not read a fantasy novel dealing with the aftermath of the war?

Mercedes Lackey is one of the most prolific fantasy writers and has a huge following. Phoenix and Ashes is part of the Elemental Masters series. The books in the series are all fairy tale retellings, set in the early 1900s. Phoenix and Ashes is based on Cinderella. There are ten volumes in the series so far. If you’d like to find out more about Mercedes Lackey— here’s the link to her website.

Here are the first sentences

Her eyes were so sore and swollen from weeping that she thought she should have no tears left at all. She was so tired that she couldn’t keep her mind focused on anything; it flitted from one thought to another, no matter how she tried to concentrate.

One kept recurring, in a  never-ending refrain of lament. What am I doing here? I should be at Oxford.

Eleanor Robinson rested her aching head against the cold, wet glass of the tiny window in the twilight gloom of her attic bedroom. With an effort, she closed her sore, tired eyes, as her shoulders hunched inside an old woollen shawl. The bleak December weather had turned rotten and rainy, utterly un-Christmas-like. Not that she cared about Christmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

 

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The discussion starts on Friday, 31 October 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.