The Dog – Hunden by Kerstin Ekman – Swedish Novella – A Post a Day in May

Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman is something like the grande dame of Swedish literature. She’s considered one of the most important, if not the most important living Swedish writer. She has written numerous novels, many of which received prizes and were made into movies. She’s also been extensively translated. Ekman began her career as a crime author but subsequently moved away from the genre. The novella The DogHunden was published in 1986. I read the German translation, Hundeherz (by far the most poetic title) as I always feel it’s closer to the Scandinavian languages than English.

Before I start the review, I have to spoil the book. The blurb does so too and with good reason. The beginning of the book is quite sad, and, for most animal lovers, it would be too heart-breaking to read on not knowing whether there would be a happy ending. Luckily, there is. So, now you know it – Sad beginning, happy ending.

The Dog is set in the countryside of Northern Sweden. It’s winter and a man drives to a lake to go fishing. He has no intention to take his dog, but she sees him and runs after his scooter. Her little puppy follows her. In the snow and the cold, the puppy gets lost. Upon his return home, the man notices the dog’s absence and searches for him. To no avail. What follows is a dramatic tale of survival during a harsh winter, in a wild landscape. The puppy almost freezes and starves. At first, he just crouches under the low branches of fir trees, shivering, his heart beating wildly. Then he finds a dead elk and the meat of the massive animal helps him over many weeks.

During the long winter months, he learns to recognize the noises and traits of the landscape. Eventually, he explores farther and farther away from his hiding place. He learns to hunt and to avoid being hunted.

The story is told from the point of view of the dog, but Ekman doesn’t try to humanize the dog. She tells the story in a way that makes it very plausible, just describing what the puppy can see, smell, taste, hear. The result is brilliant. In lesser hands this might have become mawkish, but it isn’t. She is an astounding writer, with a huge vocabulary and intimate knowledge of the Swedish landscape, the flora, the fauna. The animals and plants are all named. It’s never just “a tree” or “a bird” or “a plant”. She’ll let you know exactly what it is. All the many wild birds and animals are differentiated through the noises their wings or paws make. The wind sounds different, depending on which grasses and plants it rustles. And the many scents are described in so much detail too. It’s true that every plant smells different when it is crushed.

The story isn’t sentimental and therefore, at times, a bit hard to read. After all, it’s a tale of survival and that includes hunting. The dog must hunt to survive. And there’s also an elk hunt later in the novella that leads him back to the man who lost him.

This is a tale about survival, about enduring cold, hunger, and loneliness. But ultimately it’s also a tale about the strong bond between man and dog.

I did expect this to be good, but I didn’t expect the writing to be this extraordinary. I’m already looking forward to reading more of her work.

 

Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland – Animal Cuteness -A Post a Day in May

I feel like we can all do with some cuteness these days and so I decided to share this book about animal friendships. Unlikely Friendships is such a lovely book. The stories are all so touching and the pictures that go with them are beyond cute. Some of these friendships aren’t that uncommon but some really make you look twice. There are 47 true stories in the book, most of them accompanied by three to four pictures.

Some of the stories like that about the gorilla Koko and the kitty are quite famous. Others are told by people who witnessed their pets suddenly being very friendly with an animal from another species. Other stories have been reported by visitors to parks or nature reserves like this one:

This young male Macaque found a stray kitten in the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali. Visitors saw the two together. They were inseparable. The kitty could have gotten away many times, people even tried to take him away, but he always ran back to his monkey friend.

The story between the gorilla Koko and his kitten is well known as Koko was famous. In the 80s she was taught sign language and was able to communicate with people. One day, she told her teacher that she wanted a kitten for her birthday. And that’s how these two became friends. The story didn’t have a happy-ending as the kitten was later run over by a car. Koko was inconsolable and grieved her kitten for a very long time.

The friendship between this lioness and the baby Oryx is another very unlikely friendship. The two were spotted together in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.

There are several friendships between cats and other animals in this book. Cats and rats, cats and cockatoos, cats and pigs, and this one between an Iguana and a house cat. The Iguana was found wandering the streets of New York and someone rescued him. He couldn’t keep the animal and gave him to a friend, a nurse, who was known for rescuing stray animals. The Iguana thrived and grew and soon stretched to four and a half feet. When the nurse adopted a rescue kitten, the most unlikely thing happened – they became friends and are always close together.

This might be one of my favourite pictures because they both look at the camera in such a cute way. This friendship lasted until the owl was grown up, then it was brought to an aviary. To this day, when the owner of the greyhound walks by the aviary, the owl and the dog greet each other.

This male pit bull belongs to an owner who lives in Texas. When her female dog had pups, she noticed that the dad was even keener and more affectionate than the mother. Whenever there are small chicken on her farm, they climb on his back and he seems to love them very much. The closest friendship he has though is with a Siamese cat.

I hope you enjoyed this little sneak peek at this wonderful book. There are many other friendships in here – To name but a few more: Black bear and cat, dog and Bobtail Cat, White Rhino and Billy goat, seeing eyed cat and a blind mutt and macaque and white dove.

While this is a cute book, it also proves that animals have deep feelings and are capable to form strong connections and friendships.

The Stranger Next Door – Les catilinaires by Amélie Nothomb – Belgian Novella – A Post a Day in May

I don’t know many authors who are as prolific as Amélie Nothomb. Since her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was published in 1992, she published another 36 or more. I’ve read her first and one of her newer ones, Barbe Bleu, which I reviewed here. I always meant to get back to her and finally chose The Stranger Next Door, as I’ve come across a really appealing review on Guy’s blog here. The Stranger Next Door is one of her earlier novels, her fifth to be precise, published 1995.

The Hazels are happily married and like nothing better than solitude and being with each other. Emile Hazel has just retired from his job as Latin and Greek teacher. The Hazels are looking forward to their retirement. The only thing that’s missing is the perfect house in a perfect location, far away from any other people. Luckily, they find that house. The HOUSE. It’s amazing and in such a beautiful landscape. The next village is miles away. There is a neighbour, a doctor, so that too, is perfect. On their first day, it starts to snow, and they enjoy a wonderful walk. When they come back, they look forward to an evening of peace and quiet but at 4pm sharp, someone knocks on the door. It is their neighbour. They are not too keen on being disturbed like this but what can they do? They ask him in, and he stays for a full two hours hardly talking, looking morose, and clearly not enjoying his stay. Glad when the visit is finally over, they don’t want to think about it anymore, but at 4pm sharp, the next day, they have to as their neighbour repeats his visit. And the next day. And the day after. He comes at 4pm and leaves at 6pm, every time demanding coffee, not talking, and only answering with yes or no or not at all. It’s like a sinister groundhog day.

I often wonder if Amélie Nothomb is one of those authors who begin their stories with a “What if” question. It seems that’s exactly what she did here. What if you were living in a wonderful house, and suddenly someone turns up stubbornly every day at the same time, even though he doesn’t seem to enjoy it? What would a polite, cowardly person do?

The intrusion of their neighbour triggers all sorts of feelings and finally also reactions in them. At first, they are just helpless. How does one handle a situation like this without being rude? After a while, being rude is the least of their problems. As this story progresses and the doctor’s wife, a grotesquely obese woman, is introduced as well, it becomes more and more sinister.

This is a dark little novel with bizarre and grotesque elements and an outcome that’s quite unforeseeable. I literally couldn’t put it down. I needed to know where this was going. It’s told from the point of view of Emile Hazel and to see his polished surface crack and a new character emerge is fascinating. And also relatable. Haven’t we all, at times, felt that we should have said no earlier? That we were too nice, too polite? Most of the times, it won’t end like it does here but very often, we too might have felt – enough is enough.

If you like dark and twisted stories, you might enjoy this.

Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes by Eduard von Keyserling – A Post a Day in May

I wrote about one of Eduard von Keyserling’s novellas during GLM 2013 –here. Back then, not one of his books had been translated into English and that was such an incredible shame. Meanwhile, his masterpiece Die Wellen  Waves has been translated and published by Dedalus European Classics. As I wrote in that post, von Keyserling is often compared to Fontane because they are from the North and both set their novels in the Northern parts of Germany. It’s a very unfortunate comparison because the era and writing style are so different. Both are elegant writers, but von Keyserling is much more like Schnitzler than Fontane. He’s a typical impressionist writer. He has something very Austrian and when one knows a few things about his life, that’s no coincidence. He was born at Castle Tels-Paddern (now in  Latvia), Courland Governorate, then part of the Russian Empire, but then moved to Vienna and later to Munich.

Maybe Waves wasn’t a success – I never saw it reviewed on any blogs – because that remained the only official translation. There’s good news though, as Tony from Tony’s Reading List actually went and translated first the book I reviewed in 2013 – Schwüle Tage  Sultry Days and then two other short works, which you can all find here.

Sadly, Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes, the novella I read on my beautiful rainy reading day last week, hasn’t been translated. As with everything I’ve ever read by von Keyserling – it’s a shame. He’s such a brilliant writer.

Am Südhang opens with Karl Erdmann von West-Wallbaum in a carriage on his way to his parent’s estate where he will spend his summer. He has just been made Lieutenant and thinks that this rise will mean people will take him more seriously. He can hardly wait to arrive as the summers on his parent’s estate are always so beautiful. And he is always in love. Always with the same woman, Daniela, a friend of his mother, who is much younger and divorced. Every summer she’s the centre of all the men’s attention as she’s beautiful, intelligent, and likes to charm. It’s both painful and delicious to be in love with her, as Karl Erdmann muses, and he’s looking forward to lying in the grass and dream of her all day long.

But that isn’t the only thing he’s looking forward to. On the estate, with his family, his parents and siblings, he lives a life of sheltered ease and luxury which makes him languorous and lazy. While he can be hard and cynical in the outer world, during summer he’s like sensitive, thin-skinned fruit that grows on southern slopes.

It wouldn’t be a von Keyserling novel if things stayed light and harmonious. There’s always a dark undercurrent and tragedy and this story is no exception. Even though he doesn’t take it very seriously, the duel that awaits Karl Erdmann casts a dark shadow. And there’s also the deep sadness of the private tutor who, like everyone else, is in love with Daniela.

It’s a beautiful novella. Rich in emotions and descriptions. Nature and the weather always play important parts, mirroring the feelings of the protagonists. In this story, the garden descriptions are so very lush. Von Keyserling paints with words. He captures scents and sound, colours and forms. We sit next to Karl Erdmann in his carriage and feel the cool shade under the trees, hear the soft rustling of the dew in the leaves. We can see the family waiting for Karl Erdmann’s arrival, the women in their white summer dresses standing on the stairs.

The only thing that was hard to read was the duck hunting. It’s always part of these novels set among the upper classes. And it’s always terrible. It was over quickly, but still made me sad.

There is some criticism of the way of life described, but mostly von Keyserling just captures a moment in time. It’s a dying society but when he wrote this novella, in 1916, it was still very much alive.

I hope this will be translated because it’s so amazing. I’m sure most of us can relate to the magic of summer holidays when you’re still a child or very young. Those hot, languorous, carefree days, mostly spent outdoors unless summer rains kept you in.

If you haven’t read von Keyserling yet, do yourself a favour and read Waves or some of Tony’s translations. I’m adding the link to them here again.

Most of his novellas were translated into French – here’s a link to the collected works.

The cover of the German edition shows a painting of Max Liebermann, Landhaus in Hilversum (1901). It’s the perfect choice for this book.

Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson – History, Recipes, Quotes – A Post a Day in May

It is entirely possible that many of you already know Tea with Jane Austen as it was a favourite with book bloggers when it came out. That wasn’t exactly yesterday but in 2011. This edition, that is. The original was published in 2004.

Tea with Jane Austen is a delightful and informative book that will charm Jane Austen and tea lovers alike. As the introduction states:

The book examines the role tea played in everyday life for Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) and her characters. Illustrated with extracts from her novels, her letters, and the writings of her contemporaries, each chapter looks at tea in a different context, from taking tea at various times of day to its function in particular aspects of their lives. I also include some recipes of the time, along with adaptations for the modern cook, for tasty fare that was served with tea.

I like that we learn a lot about Austen’s life and the history and importance of tea at the time. The extracts from the letters and the quotes from the books really transport you back in time.

It’s an ideal companion to read alongside the novels, an excellent introduction to her life and work, or a nice way to remember those we’ve already read. But it can also be used to recreate a breakfast, afternoon, or evening tea à la Jane Austen.

Kim Wilson has written other books about Jane Austen. At Home with Jane Austen looks particularly appealing.

 

Night Walks by Charles Dickens – London by Night – A Post a Day in May

Today’s post is very short. We have the most delicious reading weather and I want to make the most of it. Yesterday the thermometer on my shady balcony showed 30°. It was hot and humid, so, as was to be expected, we have rain today. Not just a drizzle, a downpour. The back garden is full of very old trees with dense foliage that is now dripping with rain. It’s wonderful. The best reading weather ever.

Night Walks, one of the titles from the Penguin Great Ideas series, contains several journalistic texts Charles Dickens wrote between 1850 – 1870. I’ve only read the first short piece so far, the one that has given the book it’s title – Night Walks.

During a certain period of his life, Dickens suffered from insomnia. It was due to a “distressing impression” and led to his wandering the streets of London all night during a series of several nights. He never says what distressing impression caused his insomnia, only speaks about the cure. Since he couldn’t sleep, he decided, it would be best to go for long walks. He must have left the house around midnight and only returned after sunrise to, finally, fall into an exhausted sleep.

This is a very short piece but it’s immensely enjoyable. Dickens describes his nightly London so well, creates such an uncanny atmosphere, touches on so many themes like homelessness, social injustice, poverty, mental health, in a mere 15 pages.

But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the bans were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river

He starts his walk close to Waterloo Bridge, at the time, a toll bridge, and walks on in the direction of London Bridge, Westminster, and ends at Covent Garden. He passes prisons, asylums, and theatres. After two in the morning, when the last pub closes, it gets very quiet. Only very few people are out and about and he cherishes what little contact he has, with the man on the toll bridge for example. His favourite parts seem to be having a light breakfast at Covent Garden or watching the mail come in at a railway terminus.

I tried to find out what caused Dickens’ insomnia and came across this interesting blog post

The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes by Yasmine Ghata – A French/Turkish Novel – A Post a Day in May

Yasmine Ghata was born in France to a Turkish father and a Lebanese mother, the famous poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Yasmine Ghata studied Islamic Art. The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes was her first novel. It was published in French in 2004, the Hesperus edition is from 2007. It’s currently sold out but used copies can be found very easily.

The Calligraphers’ Night tells a very poetic version of the story of Yasmine Ghata’s grandmother, the first female Turkish master calligrapher Rikkat Kunt. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of Rikkat. Rikkat Kunt was born in 1903 in Istanbul, where she also died in 1986. She was always drawn to calligraphy, the art that captures Allah’s breath, but at first she was married to a man she didn’t love. It wasn’t easy being a calligrapher for a woman but especially difficult at the time because calligraphy was on the way to extinction. Calligraphy and book illustrations were predominately Islamic art forms. But in 1928, attempting to modernize Turkey, Atatürk abolished the use of the Arabic alphabet in favour of a new Europeanized alphabet. The calligrapher’s work was threatened not only because it would lose meaning but also because Atatürk was not in favour of Islam.

Caught between a loveless marriage and those radical changes, Rikkat Kunt had to fight hard to pursue her calling. She finally got a divorce and worked as a calligraphy teacher at a university. Later, she met another man and another unhappy marriage followed. The son of that marriage would be the father of the author of this book.

This is such a beautiful book. The way it’s told is poetic. We really get a sense for this beautiful art and a better understanding for the religion. Everything has meaning in this art. Not only the finished product but the act of drawing the words or decorative borders of the books. The narrator explains, for example that the time the ink needs to dry, less than a minute in winter, several seconds in summer, corresponds to the presence of God.

Calligraphy is not only described as art but as magic. It is holy and without religion meaningless. Later however, Rikkat Kunt, too, began to modernize her calligraphy and strayed from the path of religion.

I mentioned before that Rikkat Kunt is the narrator, but I also need to mention that she begins her story after her death. The pages are populated with the ghosts of her predecessors. The ghosts of famous calligraphers are always presents and guide her. I think this symbolizes the tradition of this art. They all contribute to praise Allah and his prophet and one influences the next.

I loved this book so much. Not only is the writing beautiful and the story fascinating, but I feel like I learned so much about Turkish culture, language, history, and religion. The way this is presented is informative but never dry and fits into the story seamlessly. And I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy. I also find Arabic so beautiful to look at that I wanted to learn it once.

Because being a calligrapher was so unusual for a women and because women at the time didn’t have a lot of freedom, the book is also about the role and position of women in Turkish culture.

I’ve been to Turkey but not to Istanbul. I always wanted to see it, now more so than ever.