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KK (edinburgh)

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My Innocent Absence
My Innocent Absence
by Miriam Frank
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important and life-affirming story of unbelonging, 1 Jun. 2012
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This review is from: My Innocent Absence (Hardcover)
This really is a journey into the self and the making of the self - the most difficult journey of all, but one that perhaps those with fewer losses and ruptures in their lives are protected from (and all the poorer for it).

Miriam Frank's history-enforced peregrinations are extraordinary, but much more extraordinary yet is the inner struggle, the quality of the quest and her enquiry into human behavior. I enjoyed the frank, lively, and memorable insights into places and people. It is a Herculean journey with many impossible tasks along the way, unexpected wounds from those closest to her, and most difficult of all - the ability to transcend all of this without being crippled by self-deception and self-regard.

I was enthralled by the childhood scenes in Marseille and Mexico, Frank's vivid depiction of those places and the people she was close to. The portrait of Israel is fascinating too, as is Frank's reflections on Jewish identity and its paradoxes. The rupture that resulted in Frank's teens being spent in New Zealand I found particularly resonant. Frank's evocation of the country and how she felt in Christchurch and Dunedin as a student gets to the heart of the Kiwi malaise, or rather the malaise of those who could not become Kiwis.

The memorable scene with the red dress and Frank's German aunt ('We don't wear red in New Zealand') was for me one of the most heart-breaking in the entire book, because it so vividly summed up the cultural and personal torment of the young being, still forming herself against a constantly changing environment. I also found the relationship with Frank's mother intriguing, and the rift between the three women in the family (her sister barely gets a mention) was to me one of the most astonishing and devastating aspects of the story.

Frank's analysis of the psychic split that all the cultural displacement has caused is lucid and poignant, and there were many passages I found riveting. An important and life affirming book about unbelonging.


The Celebrity of Anders Hecht
The Celebrity of Anders Hecht
by Robert Graham
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A page-turner for intelligent readers, 18 Dec. 2011
I found this novel exhilarating and hard to put down. It is a perfectly satisfying and absorbing read, for three reasons.

One, the quality of the writing. Here is a writer whose cultural erudition and historic insight is beyond doubt, but it never weighs down his sparkly, witty turn of phrase. The prose is alive and the portraits of flawed people and relationships are vivid, quirky, moving, and full of surprises.

Two, the story itself. It's a cracking read whose pace never slackens. Graham weaves a most satisfying, rich blend of action (murder on a boat during a party - it doesn't get much better), psychology (characters are believably fallible and complex), and ideas (the vision of Europe as it was in the 1960s and as it evolved since then is nothing less than sharp and original). The chapters are structured in a clever way which allows to reveal, little by little, how the past fatally impacts the present.

Three, the way it stayed with me once I turned the last page with regret. Graham's insights into European culture and human - especially sexual and romantic - relationships had me thinking hard, and for some time. He is particularly acute on self-delusions, the dangers of ideology, and the way people pray on each other romantically and sexually to fulfill some deeper need of the ego.

This novel deserves a wide readership. Anyone who enjoys intelligent murder mysteries, political intrigue, or simply engaging and entertaining writing on the human condition, will love this novel.


With the Kisses of His Mouth
With the Kisses of His Mouth
by Monique Roffey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A ground-breaking book, 18 Dec. 2011
Everybody is interested in sex, and this story has plenty of sexual exploration, but Monique Roffey's journey goes further, which is why I think this book will become cult. It goes into the roots of human desire and our need for intimacy, transcendence, and knowledge of ourselves. It is a triumph of honesty and insight, and the humour and lyricism of the prose reveal a vigorous and playful mind of the highest order. You want to stay in Roffey's company, you want to tag along on her extraordinary journey, and vicariously experience her adventures - and the sadness and ridiculousness of certain encounters make the journey all the more human and worthwhile.

A more complete, honest, and - if you excuse the pun - penetrating exploration of female desire you will not find. And you will inevitably learn a few vital things about your own sexuality along the way.

The story has an epic quality because of the psychological and physical distance the author travels, but the tone is always intimate, authentic, and sparklingly alive. There are plenty of laughs here, and plenty of heartbreak. There is mystery and mess. There is naked truth. There are also shocking revelations about how desire really works, and how that relates (not always directly) to our romantic ideas of love. Read, feel the shock and the wonder and the yearning, and emerge from this book transformed.


Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge
Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge
by John Gimlette
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Gimlette does it again, 11 Nov. 2011
Fans of Gimlette's trademark blend of dark subject-matter, upbeat adventure, witty commentary, and serious scholarship - rejoice. Wild Coast is packed with all the thrills of his travel writing.

The subject-matter is of course the destination - one of the world's most inaccessible and mysterious regions. And it is dark because, despite that delightful Gimlettian lightness of tone, the history of the Guyanas is full of abuse and extravagance, a veritable theatre of the absurd - set in impassable jungle. The chapter on 'Jonestown', the Jim Jones commune where over 900 people committed mass suicide in the 1970s, is truly a journey into the heart of darkness. And that is just the beginning. Gimlette, as ever, steers clear of sensationalism, even when dealing with extreme cruelty; instead, he shines a humanist light on human folly and illusion.

As with 'The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig', his book on Paraguay, Gimlette is masterful at weaving day-to-day adventures through a comically inhospitable landscape with forays into the past where the real damage is done. His characters - as ever - are so vivid, they're practically jumping off the page.

This is essential reading for all interested in South America, colonial history, and how our personal demons are played out against nature and each other.


Panther Soup: A European Journey in War and Peace
Panther Soup: A European Journey in War and Peace
by John Gimlette
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars war and peace for the 21 century, 11 Nov. 2011
'In America,' John Gimlette quotes Philip Roth, 'everything goes and nothing matters. While in Europe, nothing goes and everything matters.' A provocative epigraph for a provocative and thought-provoking book that had me both laughing outloud and gasping with horror.

Only John Gimlette could have written this book which is simultaneously an investigation into the start and end of World War Two and its aftermath in Europe and America; a crazy ghost trip through Europe with a American veteran; and a time-traveller's romp through some of the continent's more mysterious and misunderstood corners.

Only he could have written it because this book is a highly sophisticated journey through Western civilisation in the 20th century - and it takes an erudite intellect, a super-curious mind, an intrepid traveller, a bon vivant, and a poet - to pull it off. John Gimlette combines these with his trademark off-beat wit and searing insights into the European condition. His on-and-off companion, an American war veteran, provides an alternative viewpoint and some moving memories, but the wit and wisdom come from Gimlette.

His chapter on the great port-city of Marseilles has some of the best writing on this city in any language. Few have nailed it as well as Gimlette. 'I realised I was probably a century too late to enjoy it all at its best.... At the top of the hill was the station St-Charles. It was a sort of palace for those in a state of arrival, with friezes and statues, and an enormous imperial staircase sweeping down into the heart of the town. The statues here were the most fanciful of all: Asie and Afrique sprawled out like two lascivious sluts, ripe for colonisation.'

Gimlette's observations on Franco-German relations before, during, and after the war - to this day - are razor-sharp. On France before the Nazi invasion: 'France was still obsessed with an idyll, an image of itself as Catholic, bucolic, and patrician... France, in the words of one commentator, was 'like a princess in her castle, almost willing the barbarian to come in and ravish her.''

One of the great delights here are the intimate, moving sketches of people, and the sparkling insights into human behavior. The sensuality of the prose here is familiar from Gimlette's other travel books, but there is something about French food that gives his writing a special thrill:

'For men like him...' Gimlette writes of a hard-bitten Marseillais local called Fumel, 'food is a resort, a bit like sleep. It's almost a world of its own, a sensual landscape exisiting in parallel to misfortune. Escape is everywhere. Even in the vilest corner of the city you can find a 'curiosite de bouche, a moment of goat's cheese and fennels, perhaps or fresh peppers and garlic, rosemary, olives and thyme. A man can be poor and yet, in the garden of his senses, he's happy.' The author joins the likes of Fumel in smokey local restaurants and discovers the underbelly of Marseille then and now. After all: 'In the city of arrivals, it was only arriving that mattered. Being, staying and departing were inferior states. Greetings were flamboyant, protracted and noisy, whereas a farewell could be said with a nod.'

One of the unforgettable characters that Gimlette befriends is the extraordinary British agent Nancy Wake, a New Zealander who risked her life every day during the war, to help the Allies, in feats of bravery that will make your jaw drop. Her husband was arrested and tortured to death by the Nazis, but gave nothing away. When asked by Gimlette if she has any regrets, she says, quietly: 'Yes. Henri. I wish I'd never left him behind.'

For those born well after the war, to read about such heroes of the resistance in such accessible and prose is refreshing, humbling, and inspiring. Nancy Wake died earlier this year.

A classic novel of late-20th century German literature came to mind when reading about Nancy Wake and Marseille, 'the city of arrivals' - Anna Seghers' autobiographical novel 'Transit'. It is a story about the exiles from Nazism (including herself) who congregated in Marseille in the hope of sailing away from Europe. They were 'possessed by departure', and the narrator is acutely aware that'The catastrophic state of the world unfortunately coincided exactly with my youth'.

Gimlette's acute awareness that we are somewhat more fortunate shines a humanist light on this journey through Europe's dark times.

Panther Soup is infinitely more fun than any history book on 20th century Europe, and more profound than most travel stories. Every sentence here is a pleasure, and an invitation to be part of this essential European journey.


Trujillo
Trujillo
by Lucius Shepard
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars spellbinding - as usual, 13 Feb. 2007
This review is from: Trujillo (Hardcover)
Lucius Shepard is on top form, and this means absolutely spell-binding. I read this novel in one sitting, the way I've tended to read his other work.

Trujillo is grounded in complex psychology and psychopathology, and the 'supernatural' elements are allegorical rather than literal. This makes the story of Trujillo, like all his other writing, universally appealing. The sinister, oppressive pas-de-deux between psychopathic young gringo Stearns and battered, overweight Honduran psychiatrist Dr Ochoa, is gripping because of its many layers. There's the instantly recognisable arrogance of the rich American in a poor Central American backwater, pitted against a fine mind gone to seed in the oppressive poverty, heat and corruption of Honduras. There's the timeless theme of man tormenting woman for his pleasure, and indeed man tormenting man. There's the politics of a dusty, godforsaken Latin American province. I imagine the name Trujillo - also the name of the heinous psychopathic dictator of the Dominican Republic who was renown for his torture methods of innocent people - is not a mere coincidence.

The deeply humane undertones to this profound, savage story of cruelty passed down the generations stamp this hypnotic novel with the Lucius Shepard hallmark where horror and despair almost win against beauty and hope. Almost. There is nothing clear-cut in Trujillo's transgressive worlds, and nothing reassuring.

Lucius Shepard is simply one of the most original and exciting writers working in English today. Why he isn't published in Britain is a mystery that needs an urgent solution.


Eternity and Other Stories
Eternity and Other Stories
by Lucius Shepard
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant and transformative, 14 Nov. 2006
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Lucius Shepard's vision has transformative powers - both for his characters and for the reader. These masterfully crafted stories create highly individual worlds that are dark, fantastical, deeply human and always believable despite the surreal twists. You'll never see crocodiles and lizzards the same way after this - whether as agents of horror or kindred souls to lost humans, they are always manifestations of human rapaciousness, madness or loneliness.

You will go to the moral chaos of gangsterist Russia, the jungles of South America, Africa, a rather strange American prision, and the aftermath of 9/11. There is definitely a `fantastical' and dream-like streak in these stories, but not so much for fantasy's sake as in the sense that the boundaries of the real, the possible and the explicable are imaginatively stretched to reveal the horrors or mysteries that lie beyond. Unlike most `fantastical' or SF writing, this is fiction primarily concerned with people, places, and ideas. His grasp of foreign places is second to none in American, and I dare say, English-language fiction. He makes far more famous writers seem dull and provincial.

I envy those about to discover this marvellous writer. If you hunger for more after you finish this, his novel A Handbook of American Prayer is likewise wild, brilliant and disturbing. The shorter novel Trujillo is a dark, dark gem I read in one night, foregoing sleep.

I'm ordering all his fiction from amazon.com because his work isn't available in the UK. It's simply a crime of the British publishing industry that a writer of this magnitude and power hasn't been published here, while lesser literary creatures with their mousy offerings sneak through the publishing net. It makes me sad.


Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle
by Moritz Thomsen
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece of insight and humanity, 20 Oct. 2006
The synopsis does this book no justice. The story is remarkable enough, but it is the style of writing - unassuming yet full of colour, emotion, vivid insight, and compelling descriptions - and the charming, humanely engaging personality of Moritz Thomsen, that make this book an unforgettable experience. You will cry and you will laugh, and along the way, you will learn a great deal about human nature, especially in Latin America. I travelled to coastal Ecuador while reading the book, and discovered that some things have not changed in 40 years. It is a book that doesn't date. And the town of Rio Verde was very lucky to have a man like Moritz Thomsen share their life for 4 years.


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