Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic, is the first in a proposed series of crime thrillers featuring Caleb Zelic. Set in and around Melbourne, Australia, it opens with the brutal murder of the protagonist’s friend, Gary, who the police then insist must have been involved in some dodgy dealings. Caleb has known Gary since they were children and refuses to believe this can be true. He sets out to find the culprits, and their motive, for himself.

In a packed genre the author has succeeded in creating an original lead character. Caleb is deaf but determined to prove that he can cope independently in a hearing world. His reluctance to accept help, or admit when he is struggling, has cost him his marriage. Now he finds that his continuing love for his ex-wife, Kat, can be used against him.

Kat is a talented artist of Koori descent. They grew up a few streets apart in Resurrection Bay. In this small community, where everyone takes an interest in each other’s business, it can be hard to keep secrets. With the death count rising Caleb starts to question his innate ability to read body language. He is unsure who he can trust, including his brother, Anton, a recovering drug addict.

Together with his business partner, Frankie, Caleb attempts to work under the far-reaching police radar to uncover what Gary had been working on and if, as he suspects, this led to his death. Gary had made a series of frantic phone calls, including to Anton and Frankie, so knew his life was in danger. Caleb comes to realise that whoever took his friend’s life may wish him to meet a similar end.

The denouement is bloody with an excellent twist. There were perhaps a few too many threads thrown out before it all came together but this did keep me guessing. The pacing was balanced whilst maintaining the tension. The writing flowed effortlessly which always takes skill.

Enjoyable and compelling with sufficient originality to keep this popular style of storytelling fresh. A recommended read for all crime thrillers fans.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Karate Chop

Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken), is a collection of fifteen stories exploring ordinary people and situations they encounter, with incisive wit and perception. The Danish author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This is a rebound edition of a selection of their shorter works.

The snapshots of life offered up are varied, as are the protagonists. All are recognisable and relateable. There is a cogency, a poignancy to the prose. An undercurrent of isolation and the frailty of human interactions pervades.

The Buddhist tells of a man whose job requires him to write speeches for a government minister. When his wife leaves him he decides that he will turn to Buddhism, thereby gaining insight from the pain. He no longer wishes to spread lies so writes an article for a national newspaper exposing the deceits in which he has been complicit. He harbours delusions of grandeur believing his actions, inspired by Buddhist teachings, could change the world. As time passes he becomes increasingly selective in following his ideals. The circle turns.

The Winter Garden is narrated by a young boy caught between divorcing parents. Wanting to please, he lives first with his mother then his father, feeling distanced when they introduce new partners who have their own children. The special regard he felt for each parent is stripped away when he realises he is not uniquely valued. Opinions, once sought, lose their impact.

The Big Tomato offers a story of hope amongst displaced people. This is a gentle tale of burgeoning friendships and appreciation of kindnesses shared.

Duckling is narrated by a young girl facing the hypocrisy of her caring but opinionated father.

“Dad had his boxes and he put things away in them, even things that contradicted each other.”

The smooth surface of family life relies on much being left unsaid.

Female Killers shares the private thoughts of a husband when alone late at night, his wife in bed. The reader may decide if, as no action results, his musings are harmless or grotesque.

Flight is a tale of loss told by a wife whose husband has left her. In trying to deny the hurt she feels, an emptiness is created. Moving on from a situation when change was not desired proves challenging.

The Heron is set in a park and offers glimpses of those passing through. Of note are approaching mothers pushing their baby carriages with intent.

“They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another.”

The storyteller suspects that the stony mothers regard him as they would a sickly heron he has observed – tired and sallow, often in the way. He thinks of showing kindness to their babies but recognises the impossibility of such behaviour given the mothers’ demeanour.

She Frequented Cemeteries tells of a love story that is insular, perhaps unrequited. The protagonist is nevertheless contented but has no wish to share her new formed feelings with friends. She suspects they may demand that she regard her valued happiness differently. As in so many areas, the unusual is treated with suspicion.

These stories are concise, just a few pages each in length. They offer circumstances and concepts that the reader may then interpret. There is much to ponder in the difficulties being faced. An empathetic, rewarding little read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: School of Velocity

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin, is a story of music, love, and the abiding impact of close childhood friends. Told in the first person by fictional pianist Jan de Vries, it opens at a concert where he is struggling to hear the music he needs to play above the cacophony that pounds inside his head. Back in his apartment he packs a bag, not intending to return.

The reader is taken back to when Jan starts at his first arts school near his parents’ home in the Netherlands. Here he meets Dirk who proceeds to woo Jan’s girlfriend. Dirk is wild and dangerous, in thought and deed. The quiet and diligent young musician is lured inside the outrageous and confident boy’s web, and finds himself smitten.

Jan and Dirk become best friends, meeting after school and spending weekends together. As the school years pass they experiment with the pastimes many teenage boys brag of – alcohol, porn, drugs and sex. When they graduate they believe that glittering futures beckon. Although they will now continue their training in different countries, Jan is confident their closeness will endure.

Jan fills the gap created by Dirk’s absence with music, determined to fulfil his potential. Abroad Dirk becomes something of an enigma. When they meet again the balance of power has shifted, although Jan is unaware to what extent.

The writing is finely tuned and lyrical, presenting life with all its self-absorption and contradictions. Jan regards Dirk only in relation to himself, never considering the impact others have had along the way.

Jan’s development as a pianist is beautifully portrayed offering appreciation of the emotional depths music can provide for both player and listener. This depth is also present in the subtlety and insights of the prose. The story is captivating, affecting, a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.