CATS A – Z by Martha Knox


A while back I received an e-mail from artist Martha Knox asking whether I’d like to review her book CATS A – Z. In recent years I’ve become wary of these requests because most of the time the cat books I’m offered are either annoyingly humourous (sorry but I’m not into Lol cats or “I haz” cats) or too mawkish. Of course, I love my cats and think they are cute but they are far more than that. They are interesting, fascinating and complex. Something told me that Martha’s book would be quite different. I was right. The book she sent me is simply amazing.

Just look at this woodcut of a sleeping cat. It serves as the end pages of the book.

Endpages Martha Knox

In her book Martha Knox goes through the alphabet sharing true stories and mythology, accompanied by bits of information and illustrated with gorgeous woodcuts. Some of the stories are stunning, some are sad, others are informative. Some stories are about famous cats like All Ball, a kitten adopted by a gorilla in a zoo. Others about unknown cats or literary cats like Raton from Jean de La Fontaine’s fable The Monkey and the Cat.

Zombi by Martha Knox

The picture above shows Zombi, the cat of British poet Richard Southey. Southey claimed in a letter that his cat saw the devil.

Martha Knox

I truly love this book and think that many poeple would enjoy it just as much. It would make a wonderful gift for any cat or art lover.

For those who want to find out more, maybe buy the book, read something about Martha or even buy a print, here are a few links:

The book’s release announcement on Martha’s blog: click here 

On Valentina d’Urbano’s Il Rumore Dei Tuoi Passi – The Sound of Your Footsteps (2012)


Valentina D’Urbano is a young Italian novelist. Il Rumore dei tui passi (The Sound of  Your Footsteps) is her first novel. She won a publishing contract with Longanesi thanks to a competition. The novel has been translated into French under the title Le bruit de tes pas and into German Mit zwanzig hat man kein Kleid für eine Beerdigung. Hopefully an English translation will be next.

This novel is like a kick in the gut. It describes a world we dont know anything about, but it’s a world that the young writer knows all too well, as she grew up under similar circumstances.

The book is set in Rome, in La Fortezza – The Fortress -, in the late 70s and 80s. It starts with a funeral and a laconic voice telling us that her “twin” has died. Bea and Alfredo are called the twins because they are inseparable, not because they are siblings. They met because their families both live in La Fortezza – this is also a nickname. La Fortezza is some sort of abandoned housing project where the poorest of the poor land. Most of the families are squatters and their miserable, small apartments can be snatched from them at all times. “Never leave your apartment unattended” is one of the earliest lessons Bea, her brother Francesco, Alfredo and Arianna, her best friend, learn at an early age. If you leave the apartment, it’s possible that when you come back, you’ll find that all your belongings have been thrown from a window and another family claims the place.

La Fortezza is a place without hope. Most people have no job and will never have one; they drink or take drugs; they hit their children and their wives. They have no chance of ever getting out because when they apply for a job somewhere and have to say they come from la Fortezza, it’s over. People from La Fortezza are not hired. They are said to be criminals and drug addicts.

One way of dealing with a bleak situationlike this is domestic violence and addiction, another is to look the other way. Nothing is named in La Fortezza. People and things have nicknames. Bad situations are ignored. Arianna can get pregnant at 15 and abort and nobody will ever speak about it.

Bea’s mother got pregnant with Bea when she was only 15. She and Bea’s father were lucky to be able to live in La Fortezza. It’s one step from being homeless. They rarely have jobs, but at least they are kind and caring. The familial environment is rough; there’s a lot of swearing, the kids are slapped, but in spite of that Bea and Franceso know their parents love them and do everything for them. They even accept Alfredo in their home. Alfredo lives above and his father is anything but kind and caring. He’s a single parent, unemployed, alcoholic and beats up his three sons regularly. More than once, someone has to interfere and make sure he doesn’t kill them.

Bea’s and Alfredo’s feelings for each other are deep. But it’s a love-hate relationship, one that strengthens them as much as it weakens them.

From the beginning we know things go wrong, or Alfredo wouldn’t be dead and Bea wouldn’t attend his funeral.

Valetina d’Urbano’s book is written in an amazing, sparse style, told in a painfully laconic voice which isn’t devoid of tenderness. This is not the Rome tourists see. This world is far from anything most Europeans know. This is poverty at its ugliest. All they have is dreams. Some have the power to make them come true. Most don’t.

Interestingly it’s a book that contains a lot of beautiful passages and it certainly makes us think. People in this novel sit on the balcony in summer, making plans for holidays at the sea that they will never take. They are overwhelmed with joy when they own more than one sweater. Reading a book like this certainly shows us that we’re not as grateful as we could be. And it illustrates that this type of poverty is as bad as a congenital disease. Escaping it is almost impossible.

D’Urbano is particularly good at descriptions. We feel the suffocating heat in summer, the cold in winter, we experience the frustration and boredom they have to endure.

I admire that she was able to escape this world and that she didn’t turn this book into a pity-party. It’s a powerful account of a hidden world, a story I’m not likely to forget.


Philippe Claudel: Grey Souls – Les Âmes grises (2003) Literature and War Readalong August 2013

Grey Souls

Philippe Claudel’s Les Âmes grisesGrey Souls is a crime novel set during WWI and a few years later. The narrator whose identity we do not know for a very long time, has decided, some twenty years later,  to write the account of a few tragedies that have happened during the war. He writes for his late wife who died in childbed. He could never let go of his grief and, as he says towards the end of the novel, he never really lived, he merely survived.

In a way, this survival, makes him feel his guilt even more deeply, guilt because he didn’t fight during the war. While so many men died, returned mutilated or went missing, he led a comfortable sheltered life but after his wife died, he didn’t really enjoy it anymore. He’s not the only one however to lead a sheltered life. While the war in the trenches rages and goes on for far longer than anyone suspected, the little town he lives in is spared because there is a factory and the men are needed as workers. And there are the many officials, who are spared as well.

At the beginning and at the heart of the novel lies a murder. An eight year old girl, called Belle de Jour, beautiful as a flower, is found murdered in a canal.

It’s a cold winter morning when the police and officials arrive and the girl’s body lies on a river bank, in the mud. The judge, who has been called to investigate, first eats his breakfast, without being the least bothered by the presence of the corpse. This initial scene sets the tone of the book. It’s grey and bleak. The good people die or despair, the bad go on living their unfeeling lives.

The narrative goes back and forth in time. Bit by bit, the story is unfolded. While Belle de Jour’s murder is at the heart, there are other violent deaths like the suicide of the beautiful school teacher, the narrator’s wife’s death and, much earlier than the story, the premature death of the prosecutor’s young wife.

In the beginning of the book the question “Who killed Belle de Jour?” is important, but once we know who it was the second half concentrates on the “Why?”.  At the time, a murderer was found and executed, but the narrator never believed that he was really the one. Twenty years later. still grieving and full of guilt, he starts another investigation and, this time, he finds the real culprit and his reason.

The book is dismal in tone and topic,  but highly readable and beautiful as well. I liked how the war was blended in as if it colored every aspect of the life. It is as if the novel has two layers, the people’s lives, the tragedies they encounter, the murder and beneath all that the raging war.

I read Belle de Jour’s murder and the way the little girl was discovered as a microscopic description of the war that captured, the ugliness, the absurdity, cruelty and utter senselessness.

The book also contains a profound and melancholic meditation on life and loneliness and how one single tragedy can turn a person into a living shell and lead to crime.

It takes quite a while until the reader understands that more than one murder has been committed in this book.

This was the first novel by Claudel I’ve read, but it will not be the last. It’s not cheerful but it has a strange, arresting beauty that I found wonderful.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


Grey Souls – Les Âmes grises was the 8th book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel There’s No Home by Alexander Baron. Discussion starts on Monday 30 September, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Shannon Hale: Austenland (2007)


I’m in an Jane Austen mood these days. I started Mansfield Park a week ago and really like it. Much better than most of the other Austen novels I’ve read so far, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice (I haven’t read Persuasion yet). When I came across a review of Shannon Hale’s Austenland on Anna’s blog  (Diary of an Eccentric), I knew it would be just the thing I’d enjoy right now. I wasn’t wrong. Austenland is absolutely charming. A fun, fluffy read, with which I spent a few pleasant hours.

I’m very wary when it comes to Austen fan-fiction and other than The Jane Austen Book Club, I’ve never been tempted. It’s maybe not surprising that the only other book of that type which tempted me, has also been made into a movie. Now that I read the book, I’m sure I’ll watch the movie Austenland as well.

Jane is a 30 something graphic designer from New York, who never seems to find the right man. Possibly because she is obsessed with Mr Darcy. Not the Mr Darcy from the book but the one from the BBC production starring Colin Firth.

When her rich great-aunt dies she leaves Jane a trip to an expensive English resort that caters to the Jane Austen obsessed. Here Jane will have the opportunity to live exactly as they did in Regency England. She will have to wear the proper clothes, behave and talk like a Regency woman. To make the experience authentic, they live on an estate and are surrounded by actors who behave like authentic Regency people and pretend to fall in love with them.

It seems only women book a holiday at this resort and besides Jane there are other American women. Jane hopes that after immersing herself fully in Austenland, she’ll be able to abandon her Darcy obsession and move on.

Although Jane has read all the Austen novels many times, she isn’t very familiar with Regency England and has to learn a lot. If she doesn’t behave properly or disregards the rules, she could end up being thrown out. Reading about Jane’s  many faux pas and slow progress isn’t only fun but it’s instructive as well. While I know a few things about Regency England, I don’t know enough and reading Austenland made me understand quite a few aspects in Mansfield Park much better.

Austenland is also a romance and  it’s fun for the reader to guess which man is an actor and who might be a real person and with whom Jane will end up.

I also enjoyed the way the book showed how easily the lines between reality and imagination are blurred and that re-enactment must be a powerful. experience

The end is a bit over the top but I liked it anyway.

If you love Jane Austen and want to try one of the many books inspired by her, this is an ideal choice. It’s short and entertaining.

Have you read and liked any books inspired by Jane Austen other than this and The Jane Austen Book Club? Recommendations are welcome. I wouldn’t mind reading another one some day.

Jeanette Walls: The Silver Star (2013)

The Silver Star

I still remember when Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle came out. I devoured it and absolutely loved it. I was a bit disappointed to find out her second book, Half Broke Horses, wasn’t a memoir but a novel. I bought it but never read it. Last week I got her latest, The Silver Star, as a present and just finished it yesterday.

If you know Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star will not surprise you. Like in her memoir we are introduced to some really bad parenting, children who have to cope on their own, a murky family history and abusive grown-ups.

Some writers always return to familiar territory, mining their lives and telling a similar story over and over again. I don’t mind that when it is well done. And Jeanette Walls writes well. Her writing has an almost cinematic quality, her way of conjuring up a scene is very powerful.

Bean and Liz are 12 and 15 respectively when her single mum has a break down and leaves the two girls alone, with just about enough money for a month. Their mother is 36 but still a wannabe singer/songwriter/actress. Nothing she tries ever seems to work out and all of her plans invariably end in disaster. That she disappears for a couple of days is nothing new, but for a whole month is a novelty. When social services turn up in front of the house, the girls decide to go to their mother’s hometown and see if their uncle will take them in.

Their mother is originally from a small town in Virginia. The family used to be very rich but all they have left is a decaying mansion. The girls don’t know why their mother left right after Bean was born. They also don’t know who their respective fathers are.

When they turn up on uncle Tinsley’s doorstep he isn’t too thrilled at first, but eventually he gives in and lets the girls stay with him. It turns out that Bean and Liz really love the small town and settle in quickly. They make new friends, get to know Bean’s father’s family and have a great time. Their mother comes to visit but it ends in a huge drama.

When the local bully and mill supervisor Maddox tries to rape Liz, things escalate.

The book is set in the 70s; the Vietnam war and racial tensions are important topics. But gender is maybe even more important. There is an instance in which To Kill a Mocking Bird is mentioned and that’s no coincidence. There is a parallel to the novel, as in The Silver Star there is also a trial. Only with a very different outcome. Afro-American’s are still not treated like white people but women are treated even worse.

What I really liked about this book is what it says about parenting. It is obvious that Bean’s and Liz’s mother is incapable of taking care of her girls but despite this I was wondering how bad her parenting really was. She is often absent, not there when they need her, she’s “bonkers” as both girls say but she is kind and raises girls with a very strong self-esteem. I don’t try to say it’s OK for parents to just abandon their children but as a matter of fact, they were quite capable of taking care of themselves and if she’d been there, the attempted rape would still have happened. She is far from an ideal mother, she can’t cope and went through a lot of awful things but both girls are strong and very resilient. Many children who have parents who never abandon them, and provide for them materially, nevertheless crush their children’s self-esteem, abuse and neglect them emotionally. I find that far worse.

I saw that this book has received a lot of negative reviews on amazon (A lot of readers hated it because of the mother. I really wonder if they are all that perfect). Sure, it’s similar to her other books but I thought it was very enjoyable. It’s warmhearted and humorous. I loved the two girls who are very different, their uncle, and even the mother is fun as a fictional character. I’m glad I’ve got Half Broke Horses already. I’ll certainly read it soon.

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Blade Runner (1968)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

The movie Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies. I liked it so much that I never re-watched it but the mood and the atmosphere and some of the pictures stayed with me. I always meant to read the book it was based on but always forgot about it. After reading Danielle’s review a while back (here) and Brian’s insightful commentary a few weeks ago (here) I thought I really need to do it now. I also did a much more daring thing, I re-watched the movie. Luckily my courage wasn’t punished. It’s still one of my favourite movies of all time. Maybe I even like it more than before.

Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  is set in San Francisco, in a bleak post-war society. Only those who cannot afford to leave Earth and emigrate to Mars, stay on. These are people who have either been too damaged by the fallout, the so-called specials or chickenheads, or those who lack money. Plants and animals have been badly damaged and there are hardly any living animals on Earth anymore. It’s a sign of prosperity if you can buy yourself an animal, any animal, a toad, a sheep, a goat.

Rick Deckard is a cop, or rather a bounty hunter assigned to hunt and “retire” androids who have escaped and turned against humans, starting to kill them. A new generation of androids, the Nexus 6, look and act exactly like humans but they don’t feel like humans that’s why a test which measures the emotional response can detect whether someone is an android or not. What complicates matters is that some androids have received false memories and don’t know that they are androids.

Deckard’s salary isn’t high but he receives a bonus for every retired android. 6 of these Nexus androids have escaped and need to be hunted. Some of them are quite dangerous. He hopes retiring them will allow him to finally buy a real animal and not just an electric sheep.

I thought it was extremely interesting to read this book and I didn’t expect it to be the way it was. To some extent it’s an almost straightforward noir novel, of course with a sci-fi twist, but it still works like many other bounty hunter or PI novels. But that is only one part, the part that was kept for the movie. The other part is more philosophical and at times a bit confusing. The people in the novel can use an empathy box and also use mood altering devices. The empathy box lets them experience what Mercer, a god-like figure, experiences. Empathy is the key word in this novel. What differentiates the humans from the androids is empathy but even the humans lack it and need to be reconnected to the empathy box. At least that’s how I understood it. What makes a human human is another important question. While the humans call destroying androids “retiring”, the androids see it as getting killed. They feel a real horror of death. It is Deckard’s dilemma that he can no longer pretend that he feels as if they were just machines.

Ridley Scott used the noir elements and turned them into something that has been called cyberpunk. His movie is set in a LA that looks like Hong Kong in which it is constantly night and raining. It’s quite a melancholic movie. The hunter and the hunted are both losers, the characters are much more complex than in the book.

I didn’t expect book and movie to be alike but I didn’t expect them to be this different. I absolutely love the movie but I didn’t love the book. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it but it’s pale in comparison. I found it much colder, and it lacked the mood and atmosphere of the film. The androids in the movie seem more human while some of their acts in the book made me despise them.

Brian has written an in-depth analysis in which he focusses on the philosophical aspects of the novel. I’ve read the book for the first time and certainly didn’t get all of it. So if you’d like to know more about those aspects here is the reviw. And here another review from Anna.

Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (2012) by Jen Campbell

Some years ago I worked in a bookshop for a few months and remember how many extremely funny things I’ve heard there. People were looking for the most amazing things. Not always books. Unfortunately I don’t remember many anecdotes, I just remember that I laughed or chuckled quite a bit. Lucky for us, Jen Campbell’s memory is still intact and she wrote down the funniest things she heard or overheard people say or ask in the bookshop she worked in. Apart from those stories she contributed herself, there are numerous examples from other bookshops as well.

I’m glad I downloaded Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops on the kindle as it has only 100 pages and can be read in little more than an hour or two. Today I saw it in a bookshop and the way it is presented, with the very colorful cover and the drawings between the episodes (you have those in the e-book as well), I thought that this is one of those books which make a nice present.

Many of the examples are funny because the people asking or saying things don’t know a lot about literature. Clearly someone wondering whether Jane Eyre has written other novels isn’t entirely familiar with the Brontës. While we laugh about such things, we occasionally may also feel somewhat unkind. But there are many other examples which people probably would also ask in other types of shops and which do not reveal some possible cultural gap but sheer silliness or cheekiness like the mother asking whether it is ok that her children are climbing the book shelves.

Since I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who loves this type of anecdotes but to still give you an idea , I’ll only quote a few at random, leaving out the funniest or most surprising.

Customer: “Do you have a copy of Nineteen Eighty Six?

Bookseller: Nineteen Eighty Six?

Customer: Yeah, Orwell.

Bookseller: Oh – Nineteen Eighty Four.

Customer: No, I’m sure it’s Nineteen Eighty Six; I’ve always remembered it because it is the year I was born.

Bookseller: ………..

(Customer is reading a book from the shelf, pauses and folds the top of one of the pages over, then puts it back on the shelf)

Bookseller: Excuse me, what are you doing?

Customer: I was just reading the first chapter of this book, but I’m going to be late meeting a friend for lunch. So, I’m just marking it and I’ll finish reading it when I stop by tomorrow.

Customer: There was a book in the eighties that I loved…but I can’t remember the title.

Bookseller: Can you remember anything about it?

Customer: I think it was called 360 fairy tales.

Bookseller (searches on British library catalogue): Nothing under that name sorry.

Customer. I might have got the number wrong. Could you just type in fairy tales and see what comes up?

Bookseller: …. That could take a while.

I remember one thing I’ve overheard once in a book shop which struck me as very funny. I was standing there browsing some novel or other when I noticed one of the walls was decorated with Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was  the book’s 50th anniversary. Next to me a guy talking to someone spotted the books on the wall as well and shouted really loud “Oh, boy, what a great idea, this Capote guy has actually written a book about that song … “. Yeah, well…

All in all Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is a slim book but many of the anecdotes which capture human ignorance and folly are really hilarious.

Have you heard people say funny things in book shops?