Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey

Familiar Wars Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Greek, boy, massacre, uprooted, family

Familiar Wars was originally published in 1987, but was re-released last week to coincide with the publication of the sequel, One Third of Paradise. I hadn’t heard of Julietta Harvey until review copies of these books fell through my letter box, but I quickly released she is an author I want to follow.

Familiar Wars begins in 1922 and follows Gregoris, a young Greek boy who flees the Turkish massacre in Smyrna.  I loved the way the book combined historical fact with vivid descriptions to create an atmospheric story. Julietta Harvey was born in Greece and her love and knowledge of this country was evident throughout. I knew very little about this period of history, but everything was explained so I could understand the details of this conflict.

The writing quality was excellent and many aspects of the novel reminded me of my favourite book, A Fine Balance. I especially loved the way the descriptions included the sounds and smells of the area, as these added a wonderful depth that too many writers ignore:

But they knew how to eat! The shop flooded with new appetising smells. Hunger for the delicacies appearing behind the counter caught him unawares: it gripped him, he was in tears with sudden total desire. Large green olives swimming in herbs and spices, pickled cabbage fragrant with aniseed, baby aubergines stuffed with dill and basil, pink octopus tenderised in spiced wine, potted prawns as big as mackerels and as fresh and sweet smelling as the sea at dawn, caviar from the Black Sea, each egg as big and juicy as a grape, pastourma – the flower of the Karamanli genius wrapped in layers and layers of cayenne, and underneath, the meat, red and moist and tender, begging to be eaten, ready to melt in the mouth.

The vivid detail meant that some scenes were disturbing, but these were necessary to show how brutal this period of history was. They also helped to show how communities can overcome hardship, harnessing resilience to rebuild a happy life.

The only real negative was that the story contained too many characters. I frequently struggled to remember who some of the peripheral characters were, but in the end I decided this didn’t really matter as the central characters were so strong. 

This is an impressive book which highlights an important period of history. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the way conflict affects ordinary people, especially if you have an interest in this area of the world. I look forward to reading the sequel soon.

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June Summary and Plans for July

June hasn’t been a very good month for me. I wanted to tell you that Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is one of the best books I’ve ever read and that Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey is an amazing book that reminds me A Fine Balance. Instead I’ve been in and out of hospital; both for myself and members of my family.

It started early in the month when my knee swelled up and I became unable to walk. They successfully drained some strange orange gunk from it (which enabled me to walk again) but still haven’t worked out what is wrong with it. Then my husband went in for surgery on his shoulder; and finally my youngest son was admitted to hospital for suspected epilepsy. Things seem to be on the mend for us all, but we still have far too many hospital appointments scheduled for the next few weeks.

Anyway, enough of my troubles…let’s get back to the books!

Book of the Month:

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth 

Books Reviewed in June:

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield 

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad 

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue 

Quicksand by Steve Toltz 

Mary Poppins by PL Travers 

Plans for July

Hopefully I’ll have time to write a few reviews soon. I haven’t had any thoughts about what I might read next – I’m afraid it will have to be a surprise for you! 

Let’s hope July is a much better month!

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Two Wonderful Novellas in Translation

Professor Andersen's Night Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad

Five words from the blurb: alone, sees, murder, indecision, moralist

Professor Andersen’s Night is a fantastic little book, but I didn’t want to write a full review for fear of giving too much away. The novella begins with Professor Andersen witnessing a murder, but he is unsure about what he really saw and so fails to report the crime. As time passes he feels increasingly guilty and tries to think of the best way to remedy the situation.

He was really unwell, his head ached, he saw spots before his eyes and felt queasy all the time, but didn’t throw up. He put on his pyjamas and went straight to bed. But he couldn’t lie still, so he got up, put on his dressing gown and wandered around his apartment, from room to room. This day, and the next day, and the day after that. While he brooded. He had no idea what to do.

This book was very wordy with no chapter breaks and very few paragraphs, but the internal monologue was intelligent and compelling. It could be described as a cross between Hunger by Knut Hamsun and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka; and is equally deserving of a place in the literature canon.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys intelligent literature.

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The Hunting Gun (Pushkin Collection) Source: Personal copy

Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue

Five words from the blurb: letters, women, affair, tragic, truth

The Hunting Gun is small, but perfectly formed. It contains letters from a woman, her daughter, and an abandoned wife – each explaining how an affair impacted on their lives. The writing was simple, but powerful and showed real insight into the way secrets destroy relationships. 

There was nothing between us but the quiet lapping of water, like waves on the seashore. The veil behind which we had hidden our secret for thirteen years had been brutally ripped away, but what I saw underneath it was not the death that had obsessed me so, but something I can hardly think how to describe, something like peace, quietness – yes, a peculiar feeling of release.

The joy of reading books in translation is that you get to see how other cultures react to familiar situations. It was interesting to see how Japanese restraint influenced their actions; whilst their thoughts and emotions were identical to a British person dealing with an affair. 

The Hunting Gun was so short it could be read in a single sitting. I prefer a more complex plot, but was impressed by the power of the emotion in this book and am keen to read more by this author.

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A Right Royal Weekend!

This weekend I’ve been lucky enough to attend two Royal celebrations and I thought I’d share them with you.

I often want to do a few more personal posts on this blog, but rarely do so as I don’t normally take my camera with me – blog posts just aren’t the same without images. This weekend was an exception and the photos were so colourful I couldn’t resist sharing some of them.

The Garter Ceremony

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Today I attended the Garter Ceremony in Windsor Castle. I was lucky enough to win tickets in a local lottery and took my husband, sister and a friend along to see the Royal Family give the Order of the Garter to new knights. It was amazing to get so close to the Royal Family and to see British pomp and ceremony at its best. The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince William, and many other Royals walked within metres of us!

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I think this is my favourite image of the day. I love the policemen whispering, the random man in a top hat, and the expression on the guard’s face!

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Magna Carta Celebrations

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, a charter of peace that has become an important document in English politics. I live in Runnymede, the borough in which it was sealed, and so there have been many events to celebrate the anniversary locally. Over the weekend a flotilla of boats travelled down the River Thames and I went to watch with my family. We saw the Queen’s boat (with Windsor Castle in the background) and then had a picnic beside the Thames.

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So typically English!

Mary Poppins: In Books and On Screen

Mary Poppins [DVD] 

I vividly remember watching Mary Poppins as a child. I loved all the songs, but had no idea the concept had originated as a series of books written by PL Travers. I discovered this recently when I watched Saving Mr Banks, a fantastic film about how Mary Poppins was brought to the big screen.

Travers was born in Australia and had a traumatic childhood. She began writing about Mary Poppins as a way to escape her difficult life; imagining a magical world similar to her favourite book, Peter Pan.

Saving Mr Banks [DVD] 

Saving Mr Banks showed the battle Walt Disney faced trying to persuade Travers to give him the rights to the film. Travers was a wonderfully bitter author, viciously protecting her work. I loved seeing her character develop over the course of the film and the way she stood up to Disney. It was so heartwarming to watch and is probably the best thing I’ve seen so far this year. It inspired me to get a copy of the original book, so I could see how Travers portrayed the magical nanny I knew so well. 

Mary Poppins - The Complete Collection (Includes all six stories in one volume) 

Mary Poppins , the book, was interesting to read but it felt dated. I was planning to read it to my children, but a quick scan of the first few pages made me realise it wasn’t for them. It was made up of a series of short stories (another reason I didn’t enjoy it) and captured a period of English life that no longer exists. Each short story revolved around a simple concept (eg. a trip to the butchers) and involved Mary Poppins taking the children along, producing the occasional magical moment.

The wind, with a wild cry, slipped under the umbrella, pressing it upwards as though trying to force it out of Mary Poppins’ hand. But she held on tightly, and that, apparently, was what the wind wanted her to do, for presently it lifted the umbrella higher into the air and Mary Poppins from the ground. It carried her lightly so that her toes just grazed along the garden path. Then it lifted her over the front gate and swept her upwards towards the branches of the cherry trees in the Lane.

It was charming (another adjective I avoid in books!) but so simple it was boring. I’m pleased I now have knowledge of this children’s classic, but have no desire to read the rest of the series. This is one of those rare cases where the film is better than the book – in fact where two films are better than the book!

Have you read Mary Poppins? Did you enjoy it as an adult/child?

 

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (Audio Book)

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: astronaut, training, success, survival, think

Chris Hadfield is an inspirational man! I don’t remember how I first heard of him, but I do know that every piece of media that features him leaves me feeling empowered. Last year I saw that he was coming to the UK to promote his photo book, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, and so booked tickets to see him live. He had the entire room in the palm of his hand and is easily the best public speaker I’ve ever seen. I immediately went home and reserved a copy of his audiobook from the library. It is every bit as good as I hoped it would be and I urge you to go and get a copy.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is basically an autobiography, explaining how Hadfield became an astronaut. But he also uses the book to show how everyone can benefit from the things he learnt along the way. He reinforces his belief that you should use every spare moment to become a better person – making small changes every day to improve your chances of achieving whatever you want:

Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

He also believes that being independent is the key to happiness. Knowing that you have the ability to fix anything around you gives you more confidence. His passion almost persuaded me to take a course in plumbing – but I predict trying to fix a broken pipe would lead to much more stress in my life as I’m not very good at practical tasks!

Hadfield mixes these life-building plans with entertaining anecdotes about his experiences. It was fascinating to learn how problems are dealt with in space and I thought he managed to strike exactly the right balance between technical information and humour. I especially loved hearing about how he coped with becoming blind whilst on a space walk and what landing a Soyuz is like.

The audio is read by the author; further injecting his passion into every word. It’s probably amazing in print, but I highly recommend the audio version.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth gives the reader a slightly different perspective of the world, showing how we can all work together to make things better. It highlights the fragility and beauty of our planet, but also how powerful individual people can be when they work towards a goal. If you only buy one self-help book in your life, this should be the one you get.

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