Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Godine, £14.99) and Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, translated by William Rodarmor, illustrated by Jean-Jaque Sempe (Anderson, £9.99)

ModianoIf you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.

Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But  Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.

Catherine_certitudeModiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer.  Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person is available for £14.99  and Catherine Certitude for £9.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
All major Credit Cards & Paypal accepted.

The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill, £8.99)

the-search-warranEvery time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few.  They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.

It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.

I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre,  novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it  has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.

The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.

The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.

Ross Bradshaw

A Modern Don Juan, ed. Andy Croft & N.S. Thompson (Five Leaves, £14.99)

Modern Don Juan

I
A book judged by its cover, this one’s cute:
…..Byron on the phone. Judged by its pages
(A whopping three hundred and fifty), it’s a beaut –
…..The best epic narrative poem in ages,
Co-written by fifteen poets of good repute.
…..Their versifying excites, provokes, engages
As they resurrect Lord Byron’s anti-hero.
He’s not changed much. Morals still count for zero.

II
The neat conceit behind these ribald rhymes
…..Is a case of o tempora … wotsit? … mores:
The book reflects the hours and the times
…..As our anti-hero romps through fifteen stories
Set in the present day. These modern climes
…..Are taken in his stride as Don Juan forays
Between London, Amsterdam and Budapest
While a spell in prison puts him to the test.

III
Elsewhere, our mad bad lad is quite tech-savvy
…..(Via internet he lines up all his lays)
While another tale subverts his cocksure happy-
…..go-lucky bed-hopping escapades –
Through his interactions with another chap, he
…..Seems to be a Don who swings both ways.
But whichever conquest appears to him like Venus,
The book’s more than just One Man and His … Libido.

IV
Satirical, artful: this book’s the cream – a
…..A cornucopia of style and wit,
Reinventing Juan as DJ, statesman, schemer,
…..Likeable rough diamond, total git.
Rendered in dodgily rhymed ottava rima,
…..Folks, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.
The cover price couldn’t be a fairer deal.
A quid per canto: lovely! It’s a steal.

Neil Fulwood

Towns in Britain by Adrian Jones & Chris Matthews (Five Leaves, £16.99)

Towns_in_BritainExpanded from their ‘Jones the Planner’ blog, Jones and Matthews’ Towns in Britain presents what I’m tempted to call a whistlestop tour of urban planning, architecture and civic redevelopment … only “whistlestop” seems something of a pejorative for such a rich and detailed work.

Starting in Jones’ adoptive hometown of Nottingham, the pair set out to assess the various successes and manifold failures of two dozen British towns and cities (London gets four chapters, while a single chapter covers five key locations in the Hertfordshire Metropolis). The pattern that emerges is one of compromise between visionaries and quangos, aesthetics and red tape. Guess what? – the quangos and red tape usually win.

The authors pull no punches in their findings: Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus Phase 1, designed by Michael Hopkins, is a “carefully considered, quietly confident and slightly flawed essay in sustainable design”. However, “the second phase by Make is all vacuous glitter … based on a grand axis that leads nowhere … It is all an academic Vegas.” I pass through this development on the way to work: the description fits perfectly.

Elsewhere it’s not just individual buildings or developments that get the sardonic treatment; sideswipes are taken at entire cities. “Leicester has a bit of a problem with its image,” begins the chapter on that city: “it hasn’t really got one.” Cardiff loses points on account of its “parallel urban universe of such crassness and banality that it disgraces the capital city of Wales”. Their reaction to Hatfield can probably be summed up by a photograph caption: “promise unfulfilled”. Ah, yes, the photographs. Towns in Britain is lavishly illustrated. I’m guessing there are in excess of 500 photographs spread across its 324 pages, often satirically captioned.

But I’d be doing Towns in Britain a disservice if I made it sound like nothing more than The Grumpy Old Buggers’ Guide to Crap Architecture. Jones and Matthews praise as often as they damn, and even when they’re indulging in criticism it’s leavened by suggestions towards improvement (here’s hoping town planners read and take heed). Behind the throwaway one-liners and witty captions is an intelligent, discursive and eminently readable prose style. If you’ve never given a thought to urban planning beyond cursing the ring road during rush hour or averting your eyes from some tombstone-like office block, don’t let the subject matter put you off. Towns in Britain offers some fascinating perspectives: if your home town’s featured in the book, it’ll change the way you look at it.

 Neil Fulwood

Towns in Britain is available for £16.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
All major Credit Cards & Paypal accepted

An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes (Oxygen Books, £8.99)

An EverywhereHeather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.

This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”

Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.

But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.

Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.

There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.

Ross Bradshaw

Voice and Vision: songs of resistance, democracy and peace (Topic CD, £9.99)

Voice_and_VisionTopic Records and the GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions) have released a double CD compilation of songs about working lives and struggles. Amongst those who appear are Martin Carthy, Norma Waterson, Roy Harris, Anne Briggs and a host of others. Twenty- nine tracks in all encompassing a wide range of traditional and modern songs all  performed with passion, honesty and integrity.

Highlights for me are Roy Bailey’s rendition of ‘Hard Times of Old England’, a song which always puts me in mind if The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Reading it many years ago the book stood as a condemnation of the world in which my grandparents had grown up; re reading it recently it is now a terrifying vision of a future that is not too far away. Roy Harris is here with a great performance of ‘Poverty Knocks’. Many of us will remember Roy singing this at clubs in the 1960’s. Then it seem that poverty was on the brink of defeat; now it knocks ever more insistently at the door.

One of my favorites comes from the incomparable Paul Robson. His version of ‘Joe Hill’ towers above others and it from him that many of my generation in the Labour Movement learned the song. I recall being told by one of the projectionists at the Odeon Cinema in Nottingham how Paul had performed there in the late 1950s and on being told that there was a large crowd outside who had been unable to get in went out on to the pavement and sang for them! This is the man who had his passport removed by the Champions of Freedom in the White House who more lately have turned our own Parliament into its poodle.

Paddy Ryan’s uproarious ‘The Man that Waters the Workers Beer’ richly deserves its place. Just as true now as when he wrote it in the 1950s ( £3.00 a pint for chemical garbage, we’d never pay that would we….but we do, we do and the landlords and brewers still have their cars and aeroplanes and with the convenience of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Camoron have managed to avoid the tax on meths and water!!) Join CAMRA and persuade them all to buy a copy of this CD.

Not all the tracks work completely for me. The version of ‘General Ludd’s Triumph’ by M.G. Boulter is not a patch on the magnificent and defiant version by Roy Harris which can be found on his Topic album The Bitter and the Sweet. The version of ‘The International’ by the Topic singers does not really come off. This is a big song and needs a choir of hundreds to do it justice; though at the other end of the spectrum Robert Wyatt makes a good job of it. The problem with things that are in the middle is that they tend to fall down the middle. These views are of course subjective and others will listen and make up  their own minds. Whilst we’re on with subjective views its a pity that room couldn’t be found for Dick Gaughan’s version of the ‘Workers Song ‘and/or ‘Revolution’. Perhaps this is the start of an argument for a Voice and Vision Volume 2! This would  be a good idea but will only happen if the current one sells well; do your bit brothers and sisters!

These slight criticisms aside overall the CD is a remarkable production and Topic and the GFTU are to be congratulated for having the vision to reaffirm the power of song and the role that it has, does and will play in the fight for a better future, a fight in which like it or not circumstances conscript us all! At £9.99 a copy it is also real value for money.

Like any good night out at a folk club or a concert the evening should go out on a high and this CD goes out on a bang and a whoosh! It starts with ‘Saltley Gates’ which combines oral history, real people from Birmingham talking about the impact of that historic day in real Birmingham accents (something which eludes the media community who can only conceive of working class accents as parody and for whom any ‘northern’ accent descends into a sort of Sheffichesterpool insult). I remember seeing the news of Saltley Gates on the BBC news just after I’d got in from work and literally leaping out on my chair. This track has the same effect. Then there is Norma Waterson with ‘Coal Not Dole’. Thirty years after the great strike and twenty-five after the criminal destruction of the industry this song raises the hairs on the back of your neck and is an eloquent reminder of the damage done to us all by a cynical government act for which they have yet to be brought to account. Peggy Seeger turns in an amazing performance with ‘If You Want a Better Life’. It rolls along beautifully and it obvious purpose and commitment puts the wind in your sails and takes you out into the  world to face and overcome any challenge that might be thrown.  I’ve never heard this track before and I’m wondering where I’ve been for the last fifty years. The final track, ‘War’. a reggae number, yes oh yes. What a way out.

Lawrence Platt

The Bookshop has this CD in stock and will shortly have a good range of Topic and ECM CDs on sale.

 

The Eitingons: a twentieth-century story by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Faber, £9.99)

The_EitingonsI read this book after reading Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina about her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers’ (MKW) family. Mary-Kay came across as so delightful I took the opportunity to find out more about her family history.

The Eitingons is a big book – 476 pages including the index and references. There are a few personal references but mostly this is a well-researched book about three figures in the Eitingon family who achieved fame or notoriety in very different ways: Max, a psychoanalyst and close colleague of Sigmund Freud; Motty, a fur manufacturer, who achieved great fortune; and Leonid, an important member of the Soviet Secret Service (latterly the KGB). From time to time, MKW tries to find connections between the three, and although none are documented, she allows herself a little speculation.

These are weighty stories of the twentieth century and I found out stuff I hadn’t previously known, including detail about how the assassination of Trotsky (in which Leonid was involved) was managed. This part of the book is thrilling – even though I knew how it ended. Perhaps there is too much detail in some parts of the book as a result of MKW’s extensive research and from time to time I had to check back to remind myself who some of the characters were but MKW’s intelligence and charm is always there in the background.

They sound a clever bunch these Eitingons – they all seemed to know several languages and to be pretty successful in their chosen careers. Mary-Kay herself studied Russian although she ended up not using it and instead ended up as longstanding editor of the London Review of Books. One of my favourite bits of the book is where she describes her role as “obsessively attending to other people’s English words – washing them, ironing them, preparing them for publication.”

 Myra Woolfson

 

The North, edited by Jonathan Davidson and Jackie Wills (Issue 52, £8.00)

North_52_coverI know it’s nearly October, but the spring issue of The North has just come through our letterbox, a voucher copy sent because the mag contains a review of Five Leaves’ Things of Substance by Liz Cashdan. An excellent review at that, by John Killick, who remarks “One always knows where one is with Cashdan, she is a kind of verse journalist, and you can piece together most of her life, places she has been, persons she has known, interests she has pursued, by following through this collection. And she has the journalist’s quality of clarity, concision and curiosity.” Killick concludes by praising Liz’s ‘The Names of Wool’, eleven verses of names of wool, when she “achieved a tour de force which should be in all the anthologies.” That would be nice.

Five Leaves – as a publisher – is only a part-time visitor to the poetry world, but this issue also includes an article by Mahendra Solanki about his life’s reading of British, American and Indian poets. Robert Lowell comes out as most returned to, but Mahendra also introduces the work of AK Ramunujan and Arun Kolatkar, new to me at least and perhaps most Western readers of the journal. His article will be useful in preparing an intro for Mahendra’s reading on October 1st at  the bookshop.

There are quite a few poems in the issue from that loose group of “friends of Five Leaves” – Robert Hamberger, who we used to publish; Maria Taylor, due to read in the shop next year; John Harvey, one of our irregulars; David Cooke, who read at out place recently and shared the launch of Liz Cashdan’s collection in Sheffield; Bill Herbert from our new A Modern Don Juan… as well as quite a few others who we’ve anthologised or with whom we have loose connections.

This issue of The North was guest edited by Jonathan Davidson and Jackie Wills and is well worth buying, not least for the longer, thoughtful articles about the craft and the business. My only criticism is that four of the reviewers – Malika Booker, David Cooke , Wendy Klein and Maria Jastrezbska also have books under review in the same.

The North is normally on sale at  Five Leaves Bookshop or from www.poetrybusiness.co.uk and costs £8.00.

Ross Bradshaw

The Hundred Years’ War, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe, £12.99)

the-hundred-years-war-anthology-001Marking not only the centenary of the Great War, but acknowledging that conflict – be it global, civil or religious war – has been a constant for the last century, Neil Astley’s major new Bloodaxe anthology takes us from the trenches to post-millennial terrorism.

As a discourse on both people’s inhumanity and the struggle to retain humanity in terrifying and desperate circumstances, The Hundred Years’ War is best read in sequence – though at nearly 600 pages this presents a daunting challenge. Daunting, but rewarding.

Opening with a 100-page selection from the Great War that eclipses the recent Faber 1914: Poetry Remembers anthology, the expected works by Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg are supplemented with French, Italian, German and Russian perspectives: poems by Albert-Paul Granier, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Wilhelm Klemm and Aleksandr Blok are hugely powerful and will deservedly find a larger readership. In particular, the twelve no-punches-pulled lines of Klemm’s ‘Clearing-Station’ are an unflinching distillation of his subject.

Poems on Ireland and the Spanish Civil War (Machado’s ‘The Crime was in Granada’, a threnody to the murdered Lorca, is a poignant inclusion) take us up to World War Two. Of the English poems in this section, the weary pragmatism of Keith Douglas and the brutal directness of Randall Jarrell are startlingly distinct voices. Pieces by Brecht, Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert and Miklós Radnóti widen the demographic and deliver unforgettable images and eye-witness accounts.

World War Two accounts for almost a quarter of the book. Smaller sections follow on the Korean War (William Childress, Keith Wilson and Thomas McGrath provide American viewpoints, but the weight of this section is borne by Ko Un) and the Cold War.

 Vietnam, The Troubles, and the continuing Israel/Palestine/Lebanon situation offer a broader spectrum of work. The excerpts from Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘A State of Siege’, a piece written more than a decade ago, could have been shaped from this week’s news coverage. Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15′, in which she rails against the throwaway term “stray bullet” sets up a forceful precedent for Brian Turner’s ‘Here, Bullet’ later in the anthology. Turner, of course, writes from the perspective of a US soldier serving in Iraq. Ditto Kevin Powers. Their pieces dominate the Iraq Wars section, although Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef is well represented. Still, the book isn’t about us-and-them dynamics and Astley keeps what Owen called “the pity of war” foremost in mind for the majority of his selections.

The Hundred Years’ War is balanced, sober and reflective. Astley provides a general introduction as well as introductions to each section. Annotations on the poets’ lives and personal experiences of war are informative and unobtrusive. This could easily become the keystone war poetry anthology for this generation.

 Neil Fulwood

 

How To Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees (Melville House, £9.99)

how-to-sharpen-pencils-rees-bookWars multiply in the Middle East, The Tories are still in power, austerity bites, the world is going to hell in a handcart… So why not read a book on pencils? Or to be more exact not just on pencils, but on how to sharpen pencils. That’s pretty specialist for you. How could a book like this possibly work? How could it not? Name three things you know about Keswick… Quickly now. OK, it’s *waving vaguely with one hand* somewhere up in the Lake District, there’s a pencil museum there and, um, that’s it. 700 years of history and all we really know about Keswick is that it has a pencil museum. People go there. It must be interesting. It survives. I bet it sells this book.

What this book is not is one of those “Why don’t penguins have fingers?” type of books that sucker you in with a teasing title only to discover more about the anatomy, physiology and health of penguins than you really want, plus a lot of other superfluous pieces of information about ice, fish and weather and some weary bits about other birds. Fortunately that type of book is going out of fashion. This book will not go out of fashion because it is not fashionable to begin with. It has a bright yellow cover with a pencil on it. There are chapters including Using a double-burr hand-crank sharpener and sub-headings such as Step Two: Monitoring the egress, not of shavings, but of the graphite core itself! The exclamation mark is in the original. This is the sort of book that uses the word “egress”. There are novelty pencil-sharpening techniques, not just the mainstream pencil-sharpening techniques. And pictures.

It works too. In the two minutes it has taken you to read this review you have been able to forget about the Government. The book will make it disappear for an hour. Works much better than mindfulness.

Ross Bradshaw