Belletrista Blog

I’m sure you’ll have seen news about the political upheavel that’s happening in Tunisia. Watching the news, I’ve realised that I know very little about the country. Other North African states have a much higher profile in the British press – Tunisia is really only known as a holiday destination.

So any suggestions for books written by Tunisian women that will give me a glimpse of life there?

Posted by Char

Another Dominican author, but I can’t resist promoting the work of Jean Rhys – one of my favourite writers.

Rhys is well known for her book Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, which tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester and how she became the madwoman in the attic. This book was published in 1966; before that Rhys had not published a novel for about 20 years and had disappeared from the literary scene – many people thought she had died.

While I do really like Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s Rhys’s earlier novels and short stories that fascinate me. Many of these are set in the demi-monde of 1930s London and Paris where young penniless women teeter on the edge of ruin. Her heroines (or should that be anti-heroines?) always owe money to their landlady, drink far too much and often risk sliding into prostitution to keep their heads above water.

I should really dislike these characters. They are so passive, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle! They allow horrible things to happen to them, allow themsleves to be dictated to by the whims of men and women of stronger characters. They are like ears of corn, buffeted and bent by outside elements, losing bits of themselves along the way, but somehow they remain standing. However I don’t dislike them. I’m fascinated by them and I don’t really know why.

Much of Rhys’s writing seems to have been based on elements of her own life.  The daughter of a Creole woman and a Welshman, Rhys often felt like an outsider when she moved to London as a teenager. She was dranw into the seedier side of life in European cities and her romantic entanglements were, erm, interesting to say the least.

For example, Quartet, originally published in 1928, is the thinly disguised tale of Rhys’s first marriage andher  affair with Ford Madox Ford. Marya, an English woman in Paris, marries a Polish emigre. He has some vague profession in art dealing – she doesn’t enquire about the details. Her husband is arrested on several fraud charges and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Marya is then taken up by the Heidlers, an English couple, who give her shelter. Marya begins an affair with the husband with the knowledge and collusion of the wife.

I think I’m attracted to Rhys’s stories for a couple of reasons. I get a voyeuristic frisson from reading about the inter-war demi-monde. Despite the grubby nastiness, it still seems glamorous somehow. Secondly, I’m fascinated by how many insults and how much poverty and degradation these women can absorb. There is something compelling about their release of any sense of responsibility or need to make decisions – something that frightens and intrigues me.

Other recommended works: Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and The Collected Short Stories.

Next stop on the cruise is Dominica (and New York) courtesy of Julia Alvarez.

Her book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is the story of four sisters who have to flee Dominica for the US because of their father’s political activities. Told in reverse chronological order, we see how these women, and their parents, have struggled to find their place across two very different cultures. The Garcias are a close family and the relationships are well-written, but Alvarez also shows the sibling rivalry and neuroses that often exist beneath the surface of family life.

I understand that this book appears on high school/university reading lists and I can understand why – it’s a very readable and engaging story which tackles an interesting subject in a straightforward way. There’s plenty of material there for essay titles. I don’t mean that as an insult; I’m just trying to say that Alvarez tackles her subject in an accessible way.

National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary talks to Edith Grossman and Lydia Davis about their differing approaches to translation.  Interesting to note that Davis finds it valuable to look at previous translations while Grossman claims she never does.

Being a part of Belletrista has introduced me to so many new books and authors whose work I am eager to read more of.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s short story collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, which Tim Jones reviewed for Issue 8. My favorite pieces so far have been “Hygeine,” a dystopian and utterly macabre tale about a family desperate to escape from an unidentified pandemic, and the aptly named “Revenge,” which is probably the story from which the collection takes it name.  I confess that I bought this book before Tim reviewed it, thinking it was traditional Russian fairy tales with a nasty twist (ala the original, non-Disneyfied Grimm stories perhaps).  So far I’ve been wrong but I haven’t been disappointed in the least.

Other discoveries this year (which I admit I haven’t yet had time to actually read!):  Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, which Rachel Hayes reviewed for Issue 3; The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, which Barbara Steeg reviewed also in Issue 3; and Rien Ne Va Plus, which Akeela Gaibie-Dawood reviewed in Issue 4.

How about our readers?  Looking back on Belle in 2010, what have been your favorite discoveries through this site?  What books did we feature that you are most looking forward to reading?

The New York Times recently published an article “Translation as Literary Ambassador” about foreign governments trying to increase the number of books from their respective countries that are translated and published in the US and calling attention to the work of publishers like Dalkey Archive Press, University of Rochester Press, and Words Without Borders.  I am particularly excited to learn that Dalkey is going to be devoting more efforts to works translated from Hebrew, as I am always on the lookout for more books from the Middle East.

The Lonely Planet has published their list of the best places in the world to shop for books. It’s a bit Euro-centric, but I agree that Daunt Books in London is fabulous and well worth a visit!

I always keep an eye out for bookshops when travelling. I can’t remember of the names of the ones I visited in Mysore, India, but there’s one on the outside of the main market that was great.  And a few years ago I spent a couple of happy hours frittering away the last of my holiday money in Dymocks in Sydney, Australia.

What bookshops have you visited, outside of your own country, that you can recommend?

In Issue 8 of Belletrista Tad Deffler, one of our reviewers, poses the following question:

As readers, we crave a story whose content and execution work together seamlessly to draw us in. Yet we don’t always get all we want, and the question arises: when all is said and done, what tips the balance and makes us glad we have read a book?

I’ve been trying to think of my response to this all day! Is ‘being glad to have read a book’ different from enjoying a book? One of the women in my real-life book group always declares that she’s glad to have read each month’s chosen text, but she doesn’t necessarily enjoy them all.

As a reader I’m searching for new experiences and  knowledge so I’m always glad to have read a book  that takes me somewhere that I haven’t been before – which is one of the reasons why I love Belletrista! But I can’t be as forgiving as my friend. If the execution is bad, I’m usually unable to see the merits of the content.

What makes you glad to have read a book?

I’ve just spent an hour or so in the company of Suad Amiry, a Palestinain writer best known for her book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law which describes her family’s experiences during the 43 day curfew imposed on the residents of Ramallah by the Israeli army in March 2002. Amiry is in London to promote her new book, Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18 Hour Journey with Murad. I saw her being interviewed by Jo Glanville (Editor of ‘Index on Censorship’) at the Southbank Centre.

Amiry is a fantastic storyteller. She uses the stories of individuals to illustrate the desperate situation Palestinians have to live in, concerned to show the real texture of life in Palestine rather than the single stories of victim or aggressor that she believes have led to Palestine becoming a cliché. The stories she recounts are often humorous; she rebels against the situation by making fun of it, saying that in Palestine you either laugh or cry – there is nothing in between.

Intelligent and forthright, Amiry does not pull any punches when talking about Israel and the land they have stolen from her people. She became visibly upset when recounting how her father returned to the home he lost in 1948 only to find that the family now living there would not let him in to the house. Her anger and incomprehension also came through clearly. Why, she asked, don’t Israelis notice that for Palestinians to accept the idea of a two state solution is a huge step?

Amiry’s new book is about the 18 hours she spent with young Palestinian men as they entered Israel illegally to find work. As well as being incredibly dangerous (people have been shot dead trying to cross the wall that Israel has erected between territories) this experience has given her a new perspective on her country’s future. While she feels uncomfortable in Israel, her young companions move easily between the two cultures with little fear. Perhaps these migrant workers, and the thousands of others like them, will enable a solution to be reached one day.

For each stop on my ‘cruise’, I’m going to try and read at least two works by each writer. The first author that I have encountered is Jamaica Kincaid.

A Small Place

A Small Place is a collection of essays that analyse the impact of British rule, American influence and tourism on the island of Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid’s birthplace.

The first essay is addressed directly to those who visit the island for a holiday. It’s sarcastic and has a sly wit, talking directly to the tourist, reassuring them that it’s OK if you don’t think too deeply about the problems you can see in Antigua, you’re on holiday after all. She shines a light on the social and political issues of the island, the continuing neagtive impact of colonialism and the ineptitudes of the governments that have followed the granting of self-rule – exactly the things that a thoughful visitor should take notice of.

Kincaid then goes on to write about the Antigua she grew up in, with its streets named after English ‘maritime criminals’ such as Horatio Nelson and the branch of Barclays Bank (founded by slave-traders), and the casual racism and cultural oppression of the British – making Queen Victoria’s birthday an official holiday, for example. But she isn’t afraid of criticising her fellow country people: ‘We didn’t say to ourselves, Hasn’t this extremely unappealing person been dead for years and years? Instead, we were happy for a holiday.’

In the third essay, Kincaid sharpens this focus on the Antiguans themselves, asking ‘Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than when it was dominated by the bad-minded English?’. She uses the image of her local library, damaged in an earthquake in 1974 and still left unrepaired at the time of writing in 1988, as a symbol of the political indifference and wekaness.

A Small Place was an uncomfortable read for a person from the UK – exactly what Kincaid must have set out to achieve – but it isn’t preachy or boring. It’s the kind of book that a large part of the British and American populations (especially politicians) should be made to read.

Figures in the Distance

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads and discusses Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, ‘Figures in the Distance’, for the New Yorker’s monthly fiction podcast. Originally published in the magazine in 1983, the story is about a young girl coming to terms with the concept of death and also about her relationship with her mother.  Kincaid explores the obsession children often have with death and I think she really captures the sometimes odd but weirdly logical tangents that their thoughts can take.  The story later became the first chapter of Kincaid’s novel, Annie John, which I’ve added to my wishlist – I want to find out more about what Kincaid has to say.

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