Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘books’

Book Review – Cove

Posted by lucypopescu on December 4, 2016

coveStories of individuals pitted against the cruel forces of nature have a broad and enduring appeal, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When executed well, survival narratives take hold of your imagination and remain with you. It is this rich seam that Welsh novelist Cynan Jones mines in his novella Cove.

In a short prologue — a dreamlike sequence narrated in the second person — a woman waits on a shore. Then the focus shifts to a man, adrift at sea, having been struck by lightning. As well as being paralysed in one arm, he has lost his mental moorings and is unsure of who he is or why he is marooned in a fragile kayak covered in a thin veil of ash.

As Jones tracks back and forth in time in his characteristically spare prose, we learn that the man had come to sea to scatter his father’s ashes and to catch some fish for lunch. Jones’ economy of language means that his imagery, his choice of metaphors and similes, has to hit the nail every time. It is some measure of his skill as a writer that they invariably do. Consider the following descriptions of the man’s shattered memory: at first, he has only “a sense of himself, a fly trapped the wrong side of glass”. When he catches sight of his name on an address label “it was like looking into an empty cup”. He remembers the beginning of his journey and drifting out to sea, but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

Jones’ terse lyricism, together with his repetition of resonant images and motifs, encourage the reader to fill in the gaps as slivers of the man’s memory return: he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone and “the sense of her came back”. He imagines her, “the bell of her stomach”, waiting for him on the beach. He knows they each have a feather. This slow, partial remembering serves as a reawakening — it succours the man and gives him the will to live: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.”

The odds are nevertheless stacked against Jones’ protagonist: he is suffering from overexposure, he has lost his paddles, he is injured and in pain, one arm is useless and he’s low on water. As he drifts, hopelessly, at the mercy of the sea and the weather, he becomes acutely aware of nature’s gentler side — the butterfly that alights on the boat, the sunfish staring him in the eye, the dolphins playing around his kayak. These precious reminders of the here and now strengthen his resolve to survive.

Jones strips the story down to its elemental core and much of it reads like a prose poem. His vivid descriptions allow us to feel the man’s physical discomfort and flagging spirit. Cove is a slighter work than Jones’ previous novel, The Dig, but explores similar themes. Just as The Dig was about the rhythms of rural life, Cove is about the dangerous, unknowable rhythms of the sea. Both are about devastation — one emotional, the other physical — and both examine love, loss, memory and the will to live. Cove is a haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.


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Reykjavik International Literary Festival

Posted by lucypopescu on September 28, 2013

New Voices Award


The weather was hostile but the welcome warm at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. Many world renowned writers, including Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Herta Muller and Haruki Murakami, have attended this festival since its inauguration in 1985 and this year was no exception. Canadian Douglas Copeland, Indian Kiran Desai and German Jenny Erpenbeck all read from their latest books and contributed to panel discussions. Belarusian Svetlana Alexievitch, a courageous journalist whose books about the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have earned her international acclaim and awards (and an extended period in exile), was also a noteworthy speaker. Astonishingly, Alexievitch appears to be out of print in the UK and I hope a publisher will rectify this shortly. Her latest book, Time Second Hand, will be published in several languages in the autumn.

Our main host for the festival was Sjón. A prolific writer, Sjón has written novels, poetry, plays, librettos and picture books for children. He has received numerous literary awards and was also Oscar nominated with Björk for writing the lyrics to ‘I’ve Seen It All’ from the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark. His novels The Whispering MuseFrom the Mouth of the Whale and The Blue Fox (translated into English by Victoria Cribb and published by Telegram Books) provide a fascinating introduction to Iceland, its extraordinary landscape, mythology and culture. Sjón is the President of the Icelandic Centre of PEN, the worldwide association of writers, and the organisation’s 79th annual congress coincided with the festival. Appropriately, this included the presentation of International PEN’s New Voices Award for a short story by a young and unpublished writer aged between 18 and 30. The winner was South African Masande Ntshanga (pictured receiving his award from Alain Mabanckou) and you can read his winning entry, Space, here.

Björk added a touch of glamour attending an afternoon session on ‘Digital Frontiers’, about free expression on the internet, and one of the writers’ evening receptions. Highlights for me were meeting Herman Koch, Dutch author of The Dinner published in the UK by Atlantic Books (a film adaptation was con-currently premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) and Mabanckou, a renowned Francophone African author, whose novel, Black Bazaar, was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Sadly I missed Polish poet and writer Ewa Lipska, whose novel, Sefer, I recently reviewed here. I look forward to reading Danish Kim Leine whose latest novel set in 18th century Greenland, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, is to be published by Atlantic Books next year. I also met various Icelandic authors, such as the wonderfully named Haukur (Hawk) Ingvarsson who I hope will be picked up by an English publisher and Kristin Eiriksdottir whose short story, ‘Holes in People’, appeared in Dalkey Archive’s anthology Best European Fiction 2011.

Reykjavik is designated as a UNESCO City of Literature and proudly nurtures a vibrant community of writers. What I particularly loved about the festival was that it introduced us to an array of Icelandic authors, brought together high profile international names with emerging voices, and served to encourage the next generation of writers. This year, because it was organised in association with International PEN, there was an emphasis on free expression. There can’t be many festivals that can lay claim to such a comprehensive and multi-layered approach to the written word.

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Supporting Independent Publishers

Posted by lucypopescu on December 16, 2012

Since the announcement in October that Random House and Penguin Publishers would merge there have been further rumours of other major publishers joining forces. Bucking this trend, are the smaller, independent presses who continue to publish exciting new authors or established names that the bigger conglomerates think are no longer financially viable. But publishing quality literature and non-fiction is an expensive venture and these smaller presses have had to think creatively and find innovative ways to survive.

ThefallofthehouseofMurdochUnbound Books offer readers the opportunity to participate in the publishing process. Authors pitch their book ideas on Unbound’s website. Readers can then pledge an amount in order to support the book’s publication. Effectively you become a patron of the book/s of your choice. If you back a project before it reaches its funding target, you get your name printed in the back of every copy and immediate behind-the-scenes access to the author’s “shed” (This means you can read draft chapters and join discussions with the author. Essentially you get to comment on and contribute to a work in progress). If any project fails to reach its funding target, you are refunded in full. The higher your pledge, the greater the benefits including, in some cases, lunch with the author. If you introduce your friends to the site you earn “credits” when they support a project. Unbound has some big names on their list such as ex-Python Terry Jones and Peter Jukes’, whose book The Fall of the House of Murdoch is particularly timely in the wake of Lord Leveson’s report.

downtherabbitholeI am always amazed that we do not publish more literary fiction in translation in the UK. According to Literature Across Frontiers, translation makes up 2.5% of all publications; only 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 30-40% in France or Spain. Publishing collective And Other Stories  is subscription-based and most of its books so far have been translations. They publish four books a year and these are recommended by their network of readers, writers and translators. They have a diverse community of supporters and through online discussion subscribers can sway the choice of titles. Subscribers receive a limited-edition numbered copy and could find themselves backing a winner. In just two years, And Other Stories have seen Mexican Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole – a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland – where absurd wishes are granted, giant cats are fed human corpses, and corrupt politicians come to lunch – nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2011 and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a gem of a novel that confounds all expectations – shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

next world novellaThen there is the wonderful Peirene Press who publish European literature of distinction in English translation. Their books are beautifully designed paperbacks and are always less than 200 pages “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. Their books are all award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin and have enjoyed success over here too. Matthias Politicki’s Next World Novella, an absorbing portrait of a marriage breakdown, made various literary editors’ books of the year list and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. Peirene curate their books according to themes and next year’s series is entitled “Revolutionary Moments”. In addition, they host a wide range of literary events for subscribers from informal coffee mornings to launches and literary salons.

FreshtaFinally, another publisher of merit is Stork Press who specialise in translating exceptional new writing from Central and Eastern Europe. They are celebrating their first year of publishing this month. I was impressed with the two titles I’ve read: A.M. Bakalar’s Madame Mephisto, a darkly-comic account of a Polish immigrant’s experiences in London and Petra Procházková’s assured debut, Freshta, a bitter-sweet hymn to Afghanistan told from an outsider’s perspective.

Christmas is fast approaching and what better present could there be for book lovers than a subscription to one of these courageous publishing outfits or the gift of a pledge that helps get a book published? You’ll be in for a treat and helping to support independent publishing. What’s not to like?

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Books, books, books

Posted by lucypopescu on May 6, 2009

Mexico’s shut-down has allowed me some quality reading time, offering the opportunity to catch up on some favourite Mexican authors and to research some forthcoming titles to review. There’s more to Mexico than the flu!

books1This year sees the twentieth anniverary of Laura Esquivel’s homage to home cuisine, Like Water For Chocolate. After her mother forbids her from marrying the man she loves Tita transfers her passion into cooking delectable dishes and finds that she has the ability to infect those that enjoy her food with the same emotions she experienced when preparing it. Since it publication in Mexico in 1989, it has been made into a film and has sold over 4.4 million copies worldwide.

Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction is a fabulous introduction to short-story writers publishing in Mexico today. Despite its size, I found this collection hard to put down. An added bonus is that it is bilingual – English and Spanish versions can be read side by side. Until recently, the only Mexican works of fiction in translation were by a handful of authors – amongst them, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo – so this goes some way to address the balance.

Of the classics, Paz is generally acknowledged as Mexico’s foremost writer and critic. The Labyrinth of Solitude contains some wonderfully illuminating essays and reflections about Mexico, its people, their character and culture. For a literary treatment of Mexico’s more recent past, spanning nearly the whole of the twentieth century, The Years with Laura Díaz by Fuentes is an enjoyable epic read; If you are interested in the Mexican Revolution, The Old Gringo also by Fuentes, is a fictionalised account of what happened to the American journalist, Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared during the civil unrest. I was also blown away by Martín Luis Guzmán’s chilling account of a casual massacre at the hands of Pancho Villa’s right-hand man. The Carnival of Bullets is now available in English in a newly translated collection of stories by many of Mexicos most revered authors from the first half of the 20th century, Sun, Stone and Shadows. (NB The perfect companion to Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction)

Rulfo’s 1955 classic, Pedro Páramo, left a lasting impression on me and is said to have been one of the first Mexican books to foreground magic realism — Rulfo proved a key influence on later Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

For those of you interested in graphic novels, I’m going to slip in an American title about Mexico. Jessica Abel’s La Perdida is about an American girl who goes to Mexico City to ‘find herself’ but hangs out with the wrong crowd. Ernesto Priego – who often comments here and is also a poet, dj, and writer, currently resident in the UK, translated the Spanish edition and makes an appearance. He worked extensively on the character and plot development of the comic book.

Jorge Volpi is considered one of the finest fiction writers in Mexico today, and won the prestigious Joaquin Mortiz prize for In Search of Klingsor. He is only just being translated into English but a title to look out for is Season of Ash due out in the Autumn.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea is due out later this month and is a contemporary tale about nineteen-year-old Nayeli’s quest to find the “Magnificent Seven” in order to help save her village from the drug bandidos.

Finally, for serious aficionados of Mexican fiction, Dalkey Archive Press has just brought out the new English translation of Fernando del Paso‘s colossal News From the Empire about the French conquest of Mexico and Emperor Meximilian’ s troubled reign.

All of these books should be available from your local bookshops or online.

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