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Book Reviews

Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop, by Alba Donati, translated by Elena Pala (W & N, £14.99)

Alba Donati, a poet and a publishing professional opened a bookshop in Luignana, a village – not a town – of 180 people stuck up a hill in Tuscany. Yes, 180 people, but mail order exists as did the notion that people would travel to this unlikely bookshop in a rather beautiful area. This is no Shaun Bythell (Diary of a Bookseller) as Donati likes her customers, but the book is also about the village and her family, including her 101 year old mother.
The format is a diary, starting 20th January 2021 and ending 20th June 2021. A Covid period, which also means the diary is studded with, but not overwhelmed by, references to the various Italian lockdowns and what that means for a bookshop to which most customers have to travel. The village itself remains Covid-free, something Donati compares to the village also being free of fascist supporters during the Mussolini years. It was not, however, unaffected by the war – her mother’s first husband was reported missing, presumed dead, and in one moving section the author’s family is contacted by someone who had seen the missing soldier’s dog-tags on sale in a military memorabilia site.
Donati weaves her family, her neighbours and her own personal history cleverly into the bookshop story, with each diary entry finishing with a list of books sold that day, a mixture of books in English and Italian. On one occasion she lists her recommended LGBT+ books.
But why here? Why open a bookshop in the middle of nowhere? She answers: “The thing is, Lucignana doesn’t know it is in the middle of nowhere; as far as I’m concerned New York is in the middle of nowhere. This tiny village is to me the centre of the universe, because I see it through the eyes of a little girl who braved rickety stairs and freezing houses in freezing winters, a little girl who tried to fix broken things as best she could.” As she suggests, this is not a rich area – her own family house had an outside toilet until the 1990s.
Alba Donati is a feminist, selling mostly books by women to women, something she dwells on, but only in terms of displaying more of the books women read. But she will often wander away to discuss particular writers and their books, some familiar to the British reader, but many not.
The book is charming, well produced, but is completely without internal illustrations or photographs. I’d love to have seen some drawings of her bookshop and of Lucignana.
Copies of the book are available here:
Ross Bradshaw

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz, published by Galley Beggar Press

Fragment 147
For someone will remember us / I say / even in another time

After Sappho tells the stories of a group of women artists, feminists, writers, actors, most of them lesbians, networked across Europe and the US but centered mainly on Italy and Paris from the late 19th century up to 1928 (when Orlando by Virginia Woolf was published). Orlando is significant as in many ways this book riffs on the structure of Orlando. Each ‘chapter’ is headed by a fragment of Sappho’s poetry and that too is significant in how the book is written.

Many of the women in the book are wealthy women, but not exclusively and Schwartz tells their stories, parts of their stories, interweaving the characters in both time and space in small chunks. Little sketches. Almost threads. She structures it around fragments of Sappho’s poems… and riffs on those themes. So there is much to discuss about the structure of the book but there is also the history, the rich history.

For me, this was a page turner. Yes, there is some exasperation at the entitlement and wealth of some of the characters. And some of them frankly behaved badly. Our characters were often privileged but almost all of them had escaped abusive fathers, husbands and/or rapists. They found ways to escape and ways to be with each other. To find a way of being lesbian. Some had no resources and were supported by those that did. Throughout the book Schwartz uses an authorial voice that includes us in the ‘us’, like a chorus, I thought. The lesbians in particular, were trying to ‘make us’, make a way of being. They were all brave and I found this very moving.

Interwoven with the stories of the women are snippets about the latest theories on lesbians and legislative attempts to outlaw and silence them. The Italian codes of law affecting women (as property) were an eye opener, but shouldn’t have been surprising. As a reader you get a full sense of the rising feminism, especially in Italy, and the very real dangers to women.

As we get towards the end of the book, we hear the drumbeat of fascism. Some of these women became involved in that and some were annihilated by it. The many different stories here and the times they lived in led me to want to know more and to look things up. In particular I was lead to read a book I should have read long ago, No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami.

Fiction or not? It is an alternative way of writing history. Schwartz riffs on facts, on Sappho, on Greek nouns and, I think, on the structure of Orlando. I’ll leave you with this. She refers to the ‘kletic’ in Greek. The kletic poem is one that calls or summons assistance. This book is maybe that. An invocation. A conjuring. I do think this book is about remembering. A colossal sweep that invites us to remember these women. And I’m thankful to the author and to the wonderful Galley Beggar Press for bringing it in to being.

Jane Anger
Illustration: Romaine Brooks called Peter, A Young English Girl – a portrait of the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)
After Sappho is available here: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/after-sappho/

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle (Charco, £9.99)

Claudia Piñeiro is best known as a crime writer, and you can see that in this book as the main character – Elena – takes herself across Buenos Aires on a mission to help solve the mysterious death of her daughter, Rita, who hanged herself in the belfry of a church. This dramatic suicide act happened three times in the author’s home village, I believe. But it was raining and Rita had a phobia about going into the church in the rain. Elena knows she could not have committed suicide, but does she really know? Does she really know anything?

It’s a painful book to read as Elena has debilitating Parkinson’s, being active only in the times between taking her medicine and the book is structured in the times between her pills being taken. Even then, her head is bent down so she cannot see other than downwards – she sees a lot of shoes, but not faces.

Her daughter is her carer, who hates looking after her, who rages against what she has to do as her mother deteriorates. It’s a tough read, with but brief moments of tenderness when, finally, Elena is offered some help by the health service and when – it sounds absurd – she strokes a cat at the home of the woman she has been seeking. For, despite everything, Elena wants to live.

The three main characters in the book are women but this is not a book about women’s solidarity; all of them have been hurt by other women. And by institutions such as the church. The book also talks about things we would prefer to avoid – family carers having no choice but to care for a parent, women having anti-abortion views and some women who are mothers never bonding with their children.

The book is well written, translated sensitively and our bookshop book group found plenty to discuss in the text.

Ross Bradshaw

Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts: the Salonica Cohen family and trauma across generations by Rony Alfandary (Routledge, £29.99)

A number of Jewish people I know have found a few letters and postcards in Yiddish among their parents’ and grandparents’ possessions, sent by half-forgotten or unknown relatives living in Eastern Europe prior to the war. These ghostly messages from the past, in a faded script that could not be understood by the finder, sometimes disappoint when translated. The messages were often simply “hope you are well, hope your children are well”; flowery greetings with little news other than an engagement or a wedding. They sometimes seem like not very subtle ways of asking for financial support, perhaps for an engagement gift, sent to someone living here thought to be better off by those left behind.

Rony Alfandary’s family found letters, not just a few, which had been kept in a box by his grandparents, and which were later augmented by two further collections. These had been kept by a relative by marriage who had survived the war, unlike, it appeared, most of Alfandary’s relatives from Salonica. The exceptions were his maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from Greece to Palestine in the 1930s, where the author’s mother was born. Alfandary’s grandmother, Rita, was the source of the first cache of letters – written in French and Ladino with some legal letters in Greek. Some were written in the Solitreo script and needed a specialist to decipher them. The box was opened after his grandmother’s death.

Merged, the three collections of letters enabled Alfandary to reconstruct the lives of his family. Except it was a jigsaw with missing pieces, pieces that will likely always remain missing. The first cache included letters to Rita from the family in Salonica and from her brother Leon who had emigrated to France. The second and third boxes had belonged to Leon. which finished the triangle – letters from Salonica,  letters to and from Palestine and France. The last of the letters were from November 1942. Leon and his family were rounded up in France and did not survive (though his wife’s sister did, whose family inherited Leon’s letters). His Salonican relatives were among the Jews taken to their death from that city out of the Jewish population of 50,000, only a thousand of whom survived.

Though the Cohen family had been successful, and middle-class, their star had fallen in the economic circumstances of Greece in the 1930s. Some were unemployed, others in poor health. Here too there were letters – often not so subtle – asking for money. The three branches of the family, in all three countries, were going through hard times.


The poet Gerda Mayer, who died last year, came to Britain on a kindertransport. Her father was last heard of in Russia in 1940. At every reading Gerda included her much-anthologised poem “Make Believe”, a poem imagining her father had survived and came across her work in a bookshop, ending

when some publisher asks me

for biographical details

I still carefully give

the year of my birth

the name of my hometown:

GERDA MAYER born ’27, in Karlsbad,

Czechoslovakia…. write to me, father.

Reading Alfandary’s book I was reminded of this poem, feeling that in some ways that the volume under review is a message in a bottle that might be read by someone who knows something, at least to fill in more of the jigsaw. Indeed, in private correspondence with the author he mentioned that one early reader of his book was able to add a little information about a mutual connection. And, when writing the book, Alfandary was able to find two very distant relatives, whom he describes meeting. I said earlier that it appeared that all the Salonican Cohens save for his grandmother died. But what happened to Isaac and his wife Martha? Isaac was Leon and Rita’s brother, Martha his gentile wife. Early in the book Alfandary says both died in the Holocaust, but later he is less clear. They certainly vanished from history in France. They appear on no lists of prisoners, no lists of those transported. And Martha was a gentile. It’s likely Isaac did not survive, but what of Martha? Martha who? Her maiden name is unknown. Was she left behind when her husband was taken, did she remarry, are her children and grandchildren out there? This is one of the pieces of the jigsaw still missing, another is what Isaac did for a living… letters from Salonica to Leon and Rita complain that Isaac never writes to his family back home. Isaac’s own letters to Leon – usually asking for money, sometimes large sums desperately needed at once – come from all over France. Was he a gambler, or what? Alfandary writes that it often seemed like he was on the run.

The title of the book will attract some readers and put off others. It is aimed at an audience familiar with the words in the book title but, other than occasionally, is accessible to all. The author discusses postmemory, the concept that those who had no direct memory of an event or a trauma, are affected by it as if the experience was shared. In this case, however, the experience was shared as Alfandary was the favourite grandchild of Rita, who would tell him of the family members she had lost, and show him their photographs. Not surprisingly, she suffered from depression. Her parents, her siblings, nieces and nephews, friends, her home in Salonica – all gone. She had also been a reluctant immigrant to Palestine, it was her husband who had been a Zionist. The trauma was passed to her grandchild as her yerusha (legacy). Though his generation, his own siblings, have had successful and content lives, the memory, or postmemory, of what happened sustains. And of course, it is too late to ask Rita to fill in the holes in the story, the parts she did not mention and the parts missing from the letters that otherwise bring us into her family’s life. It’s mostly always too late. But we still want to know.

Telling these stories is a way of remembering, and honouring the dead. The author uses psychoanalytic theory to try to create a coherent narrative of the experience and the impact on himself. Others tell their stories through drama and even children’s writing. I’m thinking here of Tom Stoppard’s partially autobiographical play Leopoldstadt, and Michael Rosen’s book The Missing, which is about the gaps in his family history he was able to fill in.

One of Rony Alfandary’s other books is a psychoanalytic study of Lawrence Durrell. While I can recommend the book under review I think he sometimes allows his other interests to edge their way in, not always successfully. He wonders, for example, whether Leon’s path could have crossed in Paris with Henry Miller. Alfandary asks “Is it a justified interpretation to support my wishful thinking that perhaps he [Leon] was also influenced by the likes of Henry Miller?”. My answer would be “I don’t think so”. The strength of the book is the background story and the letters, reprinted in yearly chapters from 1923 to the end. They are incomplete, at times mundane, at times confusing, but I was drawn into the life of a long-dead family, and I cared about them.

The book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/postmemory-psychoanalysis-and-holocaust-ghosts-the-salonica-cohen-family-and-trauma-across-generations/

Ross Bradshaw

Why We Read: 70 writers on non-fiction, edited by Josephine Greywoode (Penguin, £8.99)

With seventy writers to chose from, mostly known figures from the intellectual world, there’s going to be some controversy in this book, though not as much as I expected. Many say similar things, but Steven Pinker and Richard J. Evans offer competing thoughts.
Piner, makes compelling points about literacy (which few would argue with) and ends “… educated people really are more enlightened. They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and authoritarian. They place a higher value on imagination, independence and free speech. They are more likely to vote, volunteer, express politcal view and belong to civic organisations… They are also likelier to trust their fellow citizens…”
Though not mentioned in Pinker’s article, he could be talking about Trump’s America. So – fellow educated people, fellow readers – we are just basically nice.
But are we? Richard J. Evans points out that “… the perpetrators of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews were in many cases highly educated. Indeed, the higher up you go in the hierarchy of the SS … the more likely you are to find men with advanced educational qualifications. …” In another book – though I do not have a reference to hand – I read about the legal, scientific and medical qualifications of the whole Nazi leadership. Pretty well educated, in short. Evans remarks “The ability to read in itself does not make you morally upright or responsible.” Just as I am typing these words it comes back to me that my source for the educational qualifications of the leading Nazis may have been an article about The Reader by Bernard Schlink. A great book and film, which, however, posits that the reason one particularly sadistic female war criminal acted that way was because she was illiterate.
As if to prove Evans’ point, Geoffrey Roberts, the author of Stalin’s Library wrote recently in the New Statesman that “the key to understanding both Stalin and his dictatorship is that he was an intellectual”.
Still, as one of the intellectuals least likely to find a home on the shelves at Five Leaves Bookshop closes his piece, “It would be a shame to lose reading”.
The collection, by the way, split equally between male and female writers, and is a lot broader than the discussion above.
Why We Read is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/why-we-read/
Ross Bradshaw

Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt (Penguin, £9.99)

“Travel was forbidden; schools closed and playground gates were locked; cafes and pub were shuttered … Where I live, compliance was immediate and total. All traffic noise ceased, and you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets. Paper rainbows began to appear in windows, painted as a token of hope by children kept indoors; but of the children themselves there was no sign. It felt less like a catastrophe than an aftermath, as if nine-tenths of the population had disappeared overnight….
“But most of all, we began to notice the birdsong.”
This, then, was March 2020, that strangest of springs. I was working at Five Leaves Bookshop, still going to work to send off mail orders. I walked in for 45 minutes, early every morning, in that most brilliant of springs. There were no cars, no street noise … and I began to notice the birdsong.
I’d not wanted to read any books about COVID, but picked this up, the page falling open to the quotes above, on page two. I stopped, thinking of that period and of the return of wildness to our cities and towns – the goats taking over Llandudno for example. The book went unread for a year, but is now out in paperback and, searching for the quote, I read my first ever book on birds, specifically on birdsong, by a birder. Save for a few paragraphs at the start of the book there are only occasional references to the first year of COVID as Lovatt talks us through the birdsong we heard. Who are these birds? Why are they making such a racket? Are they really singing? Do they see it as singing? Do they mimic other sounds?
I was entranced by this short book. Not so entranced as Lovatt was with nature when “As a boy I assembled… quite a collection of vole skulls and the glossy bramble-black wing-cases of beetles, to the unexpressed delight of the rest of the family.” But like other boys – did girls ever do this? – I collected eggs for a period, little knowing how bad that was. But there it ended. Not so for Lovatt, who has been listening to birds for nearly forty years, though he is still “often fooled by chaffinches”. His way of describing the song he hears is charming – the bullfinch, for example “has a diffident repertoire of unassuming creaks and croaks, as if something hidden in the woodland badly needed oiling.” He describes the willow warbler, which will fly from Africa, usually non-stop, covering a distance of 5,000 miles or more in just a few days – one of what he describes as long-haul specialists that double their weight before leaving in order to survive the journey. They join a cacophonous throng singing (or croaking or wheezing) their little hearts out to attract mates and to warn others off their territory.
In the playground – “temporarily converted to a starling canteen” – he watches starlings which “seen in close-up each bird in its own galaxy of spangles on an iridescent ground of indigo, bottle-green and metallic blue – every colour of the petroleum rainbow. Add to this a pair of jaunty pink legs and multi-purpose omnivore’s bill of palest ivory yellow, and you have a gorgeous bird indeed.” OK, OK. Somewhere upstairs there’s my late mother’s old binoculars. I’ll get them later.
I learned more about birds in 140 pages than in the rest of my life. Did you know that egg-bound chicks cheep and squeak and learn their parents’ calls before hatching? Vitally important to colony-nesting seabirds “such as puffins, terns and guillemots, since amongst all that caterwauling a chick needs to recognise its parent, and vice-versa, as soon as it has hatched.”
Of course our bird population is changing. Insecticides did their work, climate change impacts… but also university buildings have become cliffs and street-thrown kebabs are as good as herring, if not so healthy to the eater.
But soon it’s the solstice. The mating calls are mostly gone, but “the delinquent starlings keep up their incessant rasping as they beg for food, and sometimes they take short but perilous stiff-winged flights low over the lake to the island, where scores of them wheeze and rattle in the wind-tossed trees.”
The book ends with a handful of poems about birdsong – including John Clare (of course), Emily Dickinson, “Sumer is icumen in”, Aderyn du (a Welsh poem), and Adlestrop…
“And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”
Ross Bradshaw
Birdsong in a Time of Silence is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/birdsong-in-a-time-of-silence-2/

Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich, by Harald Jähner

Without looking anything up, what five things do you immediately think of if I were to say “Germany immediately after the war”?
Answering my own question… John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the GDR; Orson Welles in The Third Man (yes, I know it was set in Vienna – but that was what I thought of); “picturesque” ruins; the image of the red flag being raised over the Reichstag when the Soviets took Berlin.
Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich sets out to have a more logical approach. Harald Jähner first outlines who was there at the time, remarking that “more than half the population are where they do not belong or want to be”. Several million were German soldiers who were now prisoners of war. Another nine million were internally displaced civilians, primarily city dwellers who had been evacuated to the countryside (where,  Jähner points out, they were not exactly welcome). There were another eight to ten million prisoners of Germany – primarily forced labourers who were suddenly free. Their number could have been higher but for extensive massacres by their captors, even at a time they knew the war was about to end. Finally there were another twelve and a half million ethnic Germans trailing in from Eastern Europe as, often unwelcome, refugees. These numbers were augmented by 100,000 Jews, primarily from Poland – “a migration that nobody expected” – who were passing through, having faced pogroms when they tried to return to their home towns and villages.
Who was to feed these forty million? Where were they to live? The four occupying forces – Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union – had to deal with this. And create a Germany – well, two Germanies – out of the physical and political rubble. Indeed, the rubble. The cities were largely in ruins and had to be cleared, including by trummerfrauen – “rubble women” – so often photographed. The ruins were a photographer’s dream, and there were even fashion shoots with a background of ruins, as life returned.
The population was shattered, particularly the men returning from the front. There were many divorces as the men who returned after years away came back to a different world. The occupation was harder for women – the incidence of rape by Soviet soldiers is now well known (the 1954 book A Woman In Berlin is a major source of information on this). But it was hard for everyone as the rations were not enough to get by, leading to not just an extensive black market but organised theft. This was described as Fringsing after one Cardinal Frings, who gave a sermon saying theft was acceptable to survive. The Third Man turned out to be a good call after all.
The clear up took a long time. The last Displaced Person’s Camp (for people leaving) did not close until 1957, the last camp for those ethnic Germans arriving did not close until 1966. Yet other issues were dealt with with astonishing speed. Hans Habe – actually a Hungarian Jew – thought that the best tool of denazification was newspapers and he set up sixteen of them, just as soon as major cities were liberated. The jewel in the crown was the Neue Zeitung, based in Munich, which had a star cast of German exiled writers, reaching a circulation of 2.5 million “along with a further 3 million orders that could not be fulfilled because of lack of paper”.
Ah yes, the Nazis… Jähner describes how the worst were weeded out, but former Nazis were soon back as judges, politicians and businesspeople.
Aftermath is weakest, perhaps, on the new GDR – East Germany. One interesting chapter describes how art made a comeback with the GDR promoting socialist realism, while the FDR – West Germany –  saw the promotion of abstract art. A Cold War of artistic direction – and there in the background of the West German art scene was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CIA front. This was one of the few chapters that compared what was happening on the different sides of what became a separation wall. I’d have liked to have read more about the GDR side.
There’s several chapters of material new to me. The impact of the refugee Germans arriving in rural areas for example. One town of 1600 had 600 ethnic Germans billeted on them. These were Germans who often had little connection to Germany, who spoke different dialects, who had different morals, often a different religion from the farming communities who had to put them up. Ironically, this mixing led to a more united German volk than happened under Hitler, with the decline of local dialects and the development of industry in previously farming areas.
What was hard to stomach though was the common feeling that so many Germans felt, that they were themselves the most important victims of Hitlerism. Only a later generation, typically the students of 1968 rebelled against this, pointing out how many former Nazis moved seemlessly into position of power, and who asked the basic question “What did you do in the war, daddy?”
Aftermath is well translated, by the way, by Shaun Whiteside
The book costs £9.99. It is published by Penguin and available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: a new biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller ((Profile, £16.99)

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is not a tourist guide but an attempt to see the city – and Teller really does mean the Old City, the walled city – beyond what is sometimes seen as a binary, Israeli Jews versus Palestinians. Of course there’s the added spice of Jerusalem also being one of the holiest sites in Christianity with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion as well as the Jewish Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque, all within 300 yards of each other.
That there are four quarters in the city suggests the situation is already more complicated. But who drew up the lines deliniating the them – the Christian, the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian quarters? Teller tracks this back to one George Williams who pitched up in Jerusalem in 1842. He was (well, I never!) an Old Etonian, probably did not speak Arabic and was Chaplain to the first Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, a Chritian evangelist who was a convert from Judaism. Teller points out that these quarters were fabricated divisions, with churches, synagogues and mosques scattered outside their religious boundaries. But henceforth these quarters had power – they were on the map, every map. Yet 90% of those who live in the Old City are Arab.
90% of only 35,000 people. There might be a few people on the planet who have not heard of Jerusalem, but the Old City, the site of some of the holiest places of the three Abrahamic religions, has a population just a bit more than the St Anns estate in Nottingham in the 1960s. But two thirds of them are under 30… which means population growth will become unsustainable. In conversation at the online launch of this book (on our YouTube channel soon) Teller said that many young people leave – for Ramallah, the commercial capital of Palestine, or abroad – probably never to return.
But back to the book – and the nine quarters. Teller explores the minorities within the major communities and outside those communities. So we hear from the Karaites, a Jewish religion whose synagogue is the oldest in the city. It’s been going since the eighth century though the number of Karaites now in Jerusalem is tiny. The eighth century and still in use! Though they follow the Jewish Torah, many of their practices are similar to Islam – a religion predated by the Karaites. And within Islam there is the Sufi minority, and the ethnic minority of African Muslims – Afro-Palestinians if you prefer. And the Indian Muslim hospice.
Huge areas of Jerusalem are owned by the Greek Orthodox church, but everyone is represented – Copts, Catholics, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian Orthodox… And these are only the ones who have a stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Famously the Status Quo agreement of 1757 means that each of the groups control a bit of the Church and in 2022 they control only the part they controlled in 1757. But to ensure nothing goes wrong one Muslim family (the same once since 1757) holds the keys, another Muslim family (the same one since… yup) unlocks and locks up the Church. And then there’s the ladder that serves no purpose but nobody has been able to move it since the eighteenth century as the Status Quo rules.
Perhaps the group least known group within the Old City are the Domari, the thousand or so Gypsies (the description they prefer if English is used). The Dom are outside all the communities, though most are Muslim by religion. They are the poorest, the least educated and are subject to racism by the others. The Arab word to describe them is “Nawar” – black, but not in a good way. Teller interviews Amoun Sleem who set up the Domari Society to educate and train Domari people. But Teller makes it clear that this unmarried woman (a rarity among the Dom) has her problems within her own community. The Dom, by the way, are scattered across the Middle East and are the equivalent of the European Roma, with a shared ancestry in India.
There is one missing quarter – the Moroccan quarter that was destroyed in 1967 to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall when Israel took Jerusalem in the Six Day War, its residents dispersed, in some cases back to Morocco. Teller interviews one of the few remaining in the Old City.
You will have noticed from the review that the author, a journalist, does not talk much about the Jews in the Old City, though they are represented and he does remind us that the period of Jordanian control was not exactly a period of religious tolerance. Teller is Jewish, his Bar Mitzvah was in Jerusalem, when he was taken to the Western Wall, and he has been back most years over the last forty years. He loves the city, but does not love the modern settlers who are buying property expressly to Judaise the city, or who are using dubious legal means to take over homes in suburbs like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Their views are not represented in this book. He ends his book by envisaging a New Jerusalem, freed from “the nationalist fever-dream of partition” where Jerusalemites, and their compatriots in the wider hinterland, can “live without polarisation, under protection of the law, their rights assured, their aspirations respected, in dignity…” You can see why he does not wish to include the voices of the settlers.
Every story he tells has a backstory, often stretching back hundreds of years. The book is well-written. It will tell you things you didn’t know about Jerusalem and remind you of what you might have forgotten if you do know the place.
Matthew Teller’s book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/nine-quarters-of-jerusalem-a-new-biography-of-the-old-city/
Ross Bradshaw

Furthermoor by Darren Simpson (Usborne, £7.99)

If you crossed Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights with the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, a bit of steampunk, and a serious message about bullying you would come up with something like Darren Simpson’s young adult fiction novel Furthermoor.
Though there is no alethiometer, twelve year old Bren slips in and out of a parallel world, Furthermoor, which he and ​Evie, ​his sister​,​ had created through a magical watch, which has birds and animals made from bits and pieces of metal rather than flesh and blood. There he meets up with Evie, but we know that she died in a crash. Is this a ​completely ​fantasy world or a “real” alternative universe? We are never quite sure, but for Bren it is a refuge from home where his parents have never recovered from the death of their daughter, and a refuge from school where he is in trouble for fading out academically. At school he is also hideously bullied by a gang. A new boy, a Chinese boy, turns up at school and stands up to the ​main ​bully, but can Bren find the courage to do the same? Throw in the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz here.
And then things start to go really wrong. His utopia becomes a dystopia as a crow-like creature starts to destroy the other animals and taunts him as a coward. The creature, Featherly, starts to take control creating even more scary creatures and appearing to turn those Bren loves against him. Will Bren finally stand up for himself? Of course he will, because this is a positive book (if​ ​really scary at times). And Truly, Madly Deeply? No Alan Rickman or Juliet Stevenson, alas, but Evie finds a way for Bren to let her ​- and Furthermoor – ​go, though she says in parting “But I’ll always be here, right?”
There’s resources at the back of the book for readers who might want help with bullying themselves and the author opens up about the pressures he too went through in school.
Cliché  alert – this book should be in every school library
Furthermoor is Darren’s third young adult novel. He’s one of our local rising stars. For Nottingham folk there is one added advantage in that if you look closely you will see that this book is based on a map of Sneinton. Great cover too.
Signed copies of Furthermoor are available in the shop or here:  fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/furthermoor/
Ross Bradshaw

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £20)

Some books are hard to review so this is a short recommendation for the current Nobel literature prize winner’s magnus opus. And the first thing you need to know is that it ain’t half magnus. 900 large pages, some of which are in small type, tightly bound ie it cannot be laid flat. So only read this book if you have the thumbs for it.
Secondly, it’s about the life of Jacob Frank, a false messiah in 18th century Poland, whose followers – the true believers – were often drawn from sympathisers of an earlier false messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi from the previous century. Tsvi, in the Ottomon empire, was given the choice of converting to Islam or death, and he chose the former. Frank, on the other hand, led his followers into the Catholic Church, the second leg of the Trinity out of which the final true religion would come. I think. I think only because the detail of his religion was only revealed to close followers so it is never clear what they actually believed. Perhaps they did not know themselves. And there is a cast of thousands whose lives appear in short chapters, and whose names change steadily not least after they are baptised. The settings sprawl over several countries too.
The novel – this is a novel – includes an early follower of Frank who is dead but who is more like the living dead, watching over what happens. Bishops flit through the text and there are medieval disputations as the mainstream Jewish world and the Catholic Church works out what to do with these people.
Frank was charismatic, dicatorial, immoral and believed that the the rules had to be broken to set yourself free yet leaving the Jewish world allowed his followers to prosper in ways that were not open to them before. They were able to move from a squalid life of povery and exclusion, but lost the freedom to decide on their own sexual partner with Frank behaving like all cult leaders do when it comes to that issue. They also has to find the money to keep Frank’s court running.
The text is littered with Hebrew and Polish words. There is no continuous narrative. There is, perhaps, one likeable character, Moliwda, a Gentile who is drawn to the Frankists, works with them as a translator and who tries to smooth their way despite knowing of the deep faults within their leader.
Yet I would recommend the book, with fair warning that you have to give up a lot of reading time, you might not be able to remember who is who of the characters, you might have to dip into the history of false messiahs and the history of Poland and the Ottoman Empire but if you can cope with all of that – dive in.
I was pleased to see that in December this book “bubbled under” (as they used to say on Top of the Pops) our best-seller list. Somehow I doubt it was a Christmas present though.
A more traditional review – and longer – is here: http://www.theguardian.com/…/the-books-of-jacob-by-olga…
The Books of Jacob is available for purchase here :

Ross Bradshaw