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Sue Kichenside

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The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family
The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family
by Roger Cohen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Overblown writing confuses and confounds., 3 Mar. 2015
2.5 stars

Roger Cohen's disjointed diaspora story will be a familiar one to many Jewish readers. Forebears fleeing pogroms, escapees from Nazism, immigrants adapting to a new life in a new land (in his grandparents' case, South Africa, in his parents' case, England), how much to assimilate, how much to retain a Jewish identity. There are harrowing moments in the Lithuanian sections and discomforting ones in South Africa with the dubious moral stance of the Jewish community who no longer find themselves the underdogs. (Quite hard to stomach, these.)

This family memoir lacks a cohesive narrative arc and flits about all over the place making it very hard to follow. It is overshadowed throughout by the genetically-disposed depression (possibly manic-depression) of Cohen's mother, June. There are many family photographs; one in particular shows her as an apparently happy, smiling young woman with her children. Cohen analyses this picture at length and reads all sorts of dire things into it that were simply not discernible to this baffled reader. Later in the book, he takes a lengthy detour to Israel, telling the story of a distant cousin, also suffering from depression, and interweaving it with the problems of the region. He seems to conflate mental ill health with the story of Zionism: "Nobody understood her. Nobody understood Israel." He labours the point without making the case.

As well as confusing in the telling, there are random shifts of tense and much of the writing is inelegant - on occasion, embarrassingly florid. Cohen almost redeems the book with one very good chapter where he talks about his own education at Westminster and the insidious version of anti-Semitism that bubbled up - or perhaps that should be trickled down - from Britain's establishment in the 1960s. Other than that, it's hard to believe that the author - now a naturalised American - is a journalist for the New York Times. You'd have thought that marshalling a great deal of information and distilling it into a readable form would be one of the key requirements of the job.

Wolf Hall [DVD]
Wolf Hall [DVD]
Dvd ~ Damian Lewis
Price: £16.99

6 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wolf Hell., 28 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Wolf Hall [DVD] (DVD)
I know, I know. I'm swimming against the tide here, a lone little tiddler terrified that the swarms of fans for the much-lauded TV version of Wolf Hall will rip my tiny fins off. But Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are two of my favourite books of all time and I was so bitterly disappointed in this interpretation that I find myself forced to vent.

Who was this Henry? A brilliant Renaissance man and strong ruler, here portrayed as a pathetic border-line buffoon. Who was this Anne? A sophisticated and highly intelligent operator, here depicted as a common little nobody. Who was this More? One of the finest minds in the kingdom, here reduced to a vapid vagrant. Who was this father of Cromwell? A giant bully, here shrunk to a shrill shrimp. And who on earth was his son, this Cromwell? I simply didn't recognise Hilary Mantel's Cromwell in this production at all.

Such - to me - unrecognisable characterisation is hardly the actors' fault and clearly everyone who has read the books will have their own versions of them in their own mind's eye but I can't be alone in feeling that far too much was left unspoken. Viewers I know who hadn't read the books couldn't understand a word of what was going on and bailed out early. I stayed with it but could have wept each week so profound was my dismay. I have made a mental note not to watch other people's visions of my favourite novels in the future.

Thank you for your forbearance, if indeed you have forborne. Spleen vented.
Comment Comments (11) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 3, 2015 11:18 AM GMT

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.66

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lump-in-the-throat reading., 20 Feb. 2015
Emma Hooper has written a poignant and enchanting story. It appears from its title to be about four characters - and so it is. But really, I think, it's a story of place: a dust-blown prairie in Saskatchewan where life is led at a different pace, with different priorities and different courtesies and perhaps even with different feelings.

The inevitable comparisons to The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry should be cast aside. Etta's 2000-mile odyssey is hardly the central tenet of the book. This is so much more besides. A story not only of place but also of states of mind. Longing, loss, memory, companionship, small happinesses. I am struggling to convey the essence of the thing and, stylistically, it might not be for everyone. Please allow me instead to quote at length:

So what shall we do? Otto said the next morning at breakfast, cinnamon buns, oranges.
Maybe I should go away, said Etta. A place for people who forget themselves.
But I remember, said Otto. If I remember and you forget, we can balance, surely.
Maybe I should go away, said Etta, again. Her hair was white and undone. The piece of it that fell towards her mouth reminded Otto of baby geese. A return to down.
I could hurt someone, she said. The cinnamon bun on her plate a perfect spiral, tucking into itself, away and down. Perfect.
You won't.
You know I won't?
I know you won't.
They ate, for a while, and then Etta said, What will you do today?
Go to Palmer's, I think. Help out there a bit.
Wear a hat. The sun.
Of course. And you?
Etta had one hand on the table, her left, she spread her fingers flat. Pickles, she said, carrots and garlic and cucumber.
It's a long time till winter.
But it never really is.
No, I guess it never really is.

Lastly, I would like to compliment Penguin on this beautiful edition. The exceptional cover art manages successfully to convey something of Emma Hooper's individual voice.

Not My Father's Son: A Family Memoir
Not My Father's Son: A Family Memoir
by Alan Cumming
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

3.0 out of 5 stars Alan Cumming: sorting himself out., 18 Feb. 2015
Alan Cumming uses the format of alternating chapters to shape his memoir, going from his heart-rending upbringing at the hands of his appalling bully of a father to the background and build-up to his appearance on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' in 2010.

This talented actor comes across as a thoroughly decent, honest and caring person. Personally, I could have done with less about his heroic, war-traumatised grandfather, as this particular thread seemed to go on a bit. Although one doesn't wish for the stereotypical showbiz style autobiography, I would like to have heard just a little more about Alan Cumming, the man.

It would have been interesting, for instance, to hear how it felt to go from growing up on a timber estate in rural Scotland to landing the pivotal role of the Emcee in Cabaret on the London stage (and thence to Broadway). And although I am not remotely fussed to know anything at all about Alan Cumming's sex life, it might have been interesting to know what it was like for him at the emotional level to go from marriage to a wife to marrying a husband.

Nevertheless, this is a touching read and one can only say 'bravo' to the nice Mr Cumming who has come through the trials and tribulations of his early life with flying colours. Playing against type, his convincing performance as the straight, Jewish political fixer in The Good Wife is surely a triumph. Actually, it would have been good to have heard more about professional life on this long-running series too. 3.5*

The Girl Who Wasn't There
The Girl Who Wasn't There
by Ferdinand von Schirach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Monochrome eventually turning to colour., 15 Feb. 2015
As a child, Sebastian von Eschburg sees things in different colours to the rest of us. A lonely boy, son of a once wealthy family now set on auto-destruct, he spends most of his young life at boarding school whilst his father battles depression and his mother gives priority to her horses. Sebastian's unusual way of looking at things leads him to become a photographer and eventually a star of Berlin's modern art scene.

The writing style in the first half of this story is oddly flat. No doubt the spare, stilted sentences are intended to reflect the enigmatic nature of the main protagonist but I found the prose unappealing and uninvolving. Then, just after the halfway point, a young woman connected to von Eschburg disappears and he is accused of her murder, at which point the author changes gear quite markedly.

Enter the leading - but ailing - defence attorney, Konrad Biegler, and things perk up considerably. Biegler's brilliant brain and unapologetic grumpiness make him an engaging character, and even though I could see the ending coming from a mile off, the legal part of this book lifts it from a 2 to a 3-star rating. All in all, though, I found this to be a disappointing follow-up to The Collini Case and can only suggest that Herr von Schirach sticks to his familiar milieu of the courtroom in future - this is where he shines.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China
by Fuchsia Dunlop
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chinese banquet of a book., 13 Feb. 2015
A fascinating study of Chinese food by a writer who is passionate about the subject and entirely without ego. Whether slurping Dan Dan noodles in her beloved Chengdu, mastering the art of the cleaver at cooking school or travelling far and wide to track down such esoterica as hairy crab or Qingxi Tribute pepper, Fuschia Dunlop comes across as intrepid, honest and entirely likeable.

There are times when you will need a strong stomach. Here she is describing what it's like to eat sheep's lungs: "The pale lungs are smooth as custard, floury as a white sauce, chubby as a cheesecake. In fact, with a little added sugar you might imagine you were eating an English pudding, if it wasn't for the odd tube poking out..."

Fuschia Dunlop's absorbing account of regional Chinese cooking was first published in 2008. As this complex country opens itself up increasingly to the outside world, how interesting it is now to catch sight of the last shadowy wisps of the Cultural Revolution and to look back - just a few years - to the time when China was on the cusp of such seismic change.

In an otherwise faultless book, the paperback edition that I read had small print and poor paper quality. Ms Dunlop deserved better.

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A belter of a book., 11 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Girl on the Train (Hardcover)
Deceptively simple, brilliantly clever, this well-written twisty thriller will replace the Gone Girl-shaped hole in your reading life. It's told from three different points of view: alcoholic Rachel who views the life she should be living from her daily commute. Megan, the beautiful but disturbed woman who lives a few doors away from Rachel's old home. And Anna who is now happily ensconced in that home with Rachel's ex-husband and a baby daughter.

All three female characters are well portrayed, as are the men they're involved with, and Rachel's alcoholism is utterly convincing. Paula Hawkins manages the reader's expectations with some subtlety and often to thrilling effect. If I had but one quibble it was with the denouement which was a little too dragged out and didn't live up to the promise of the book. But that's often the way, I find, with these classy thrillers and this one is first class. It will compel you forward like a bullet train - do grab a seat. 4.5*

Don't Let Him Know
Don't Let Him Know
by Sandip Roy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tales of the unexpected., 7 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Don't Let Him Know (Hardcover)
Sandip Roy's debut is not quite a conventional novel nor quite a collection of short stories. It's more a series of vignettes that, taken together, create a convincing portrait of an arranged marriage with an undercurrent of suppressed and unspoken yearnings. I particularly loved home-sick Romola exorcising her demons by reciting in her head a litany of spices: "Turmeric, coriander, methi..."

It's not quite the usual 'immigrant experience' story either. When Avinash brings his new bride to America, Romola fails to settle and not long after their baby is born, she insists on the family's return to Calcutta. It is their son Amit who comes back to study and eventually settle in the States.

The book opens with Amit's discovery of a fragment of an old letter that reveals a long-hidden secret. If you can resist the temptation to read the inside fly-leaf, you may find this revelation will surprise you (it did me). From this point, Roy surprises the reader further by ditching the narrative arc altogether and embarking on a series of 'snapshots' of his main protagonists at different stages of their lives.

Some of these are successful: Avinash's hatred of haircuts when he was a boy, the great-grandmother with her secret stash of rainy-day mango chutney, Aunt Meena's rare visit from Boston which has a shocking outcome. Others not so much: the story of Romola's young love for a Bollywood star before he became famous didn't really work for me. But ultimately, these simply told stories add up to more than the sum of their parts. A surprising - and surprisingly affecting - read.

Behind God's Back (An Ariel Kafka Mystery)
Behind God's Back (An Ariel Kafka Mystery)
Price: £6.64

3.0 out of 5 stars Scandi-beige., 3 Feb. 2015
According to the blurb, the wonderfully named Ariel Kafka thinks of himself first and foremost as a cop, secondly as a Finn and lastly as a Jew. In the second instalment of this Helsinki-based police procedural series, the plot once again revolves around murder within the tiny Jewish Helsinki community. There's the kernel of a good idea here but once again the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the detail, the denouement - all fail to deliver. There is no sense at all of place and Helsinki remains for the reader a city of Scrabble-shelf street names. As for the main protagonist, one really does expect more from a cop whose moniker is Ariel Kafka. 2.5*

The Winter War
The Winter War
by Philip Teir
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cold climate, frosty atmosphere in this Helsinki-set family story., 31 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Winter War (Hardcover)
I've never quite bought into Tolstoy's quote "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So it hardly surprised me that the unhappy family presented here is like many others but Philip Teir makes a decent fist of probing their standard-issue fault-lines. The setting is present-day Helsinki and the atmosphere in the Paul family's spacious modern apartment is almost as cold as the weather outside.

Husband and sociology professor Max Paul is fast approaching sixty and 'fighting vainly the old ennui'. He hankers for the professional renown of his youth - and a younger woman. His competent wife Katriina, meanwhile, hankers for another drink and a new kitchen. Their marriage has become an endurance test - much like Max's metaphorical matches on the tennis court. They have two daughters: vapid Helen, the least defined of the characters, and her infinitely more interesting younger sister Eva, a self-aware but somewhat immature 29-year old who is forever prolonging her studies - this time, with an aimless art course in London.

This debut novel is well written and 'invisibly' translated by Tiina Nunnally but the author has a tendency to dart hither and thither with his narrative and to leave threads hanging. Whilst this book could hardly be accused of being an earth-shattering read, it's a convincing contemporary story with recognisable and, on the whole, well-rounded characters. Helsinki makes for an unusual setting for British readers...though why Eva should miss her native city's seasons while she's living in London beats me. We have four seasons, don't we? Often in the same day!

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