Hot Stew is the second novel by Fiona Mozley whose debut novel, Elmet was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.
Hot Stew is a wonderful ode to London’s Soho providing a sharp social analysis of life in a modern metropolis. The book tackles the issues of gentrification, social class, stigmatisation, poverty, privilege, London’s housing crisis, the meaning of home, the relation between one’s identity and the place as well as the feeling of alienation and displacement.
Readers are introduced to the plethora of various characters representing complex and diverse society as well as to the rich and vibrant history of London’s Soho.
Soho is centrally located, former RLD (red light district) of London. Roughly form the 18th century until the 1980s it was considered a hot spot of the UK’s underworld. it was a centre of London’s erotic industry, with many sexually oriented businesses, often associated with exploitation, trafficking, drugs, and notorious crime scene. However, it is also worth noting that for many decades Soho has been a welcoming place offering home to the immigrants, outcasts, and those living on the peripheries of the society.
Hot Stew evokes a very strong sense of place, with many references to the real places one can locate in this central London district. Soho is portrayed as a separate character, playing an integral role in the lives of all the characters and as a place with its own complex and nuanced personality. Soho is a place of greed, viciousness, and ugliness but also of compassion, community spirit, long-term friendships, sometimes happiness covered in a veil of permanent nostalgia. Soho and its residents have created a sort of symbiotic relationship – they are separate organisms containing each other. One cannot exist without the other.
“Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down and become part of the world all over again. That is when it begins to ache, when a certain inarticulable desolation creeps in. Your body is not where your body ought to be (…). It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.”
“Life, as learned, was composed of relatively brief episodes, each seeming an eternity at the time, none of them suggesting stability, let alone permanence.”
The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes is an exceptional memoir. It constitutes an exploration of Szirtes’s Romania-born Hungarian – Jewish mother’s life. The book also provides a compelling commentary on Europe’s darkest chapters from the 20th century and its consequences on a singular life.
This memoir is a beautifully written, profoundly moving and extremely thoughtful portrait of one woman living through the tumultuous times of the European history. The narrative is a mixture of delicate, sharp prose intertwined with Szirtes’s poetry. Throughout the book, tape recordings photos, letters, and historic facts are used to (re-) construct the life of Szirtes’s mother, Magda (Magdalena).
There is also an exploration of the multifaceted identity – a complex idea especially for the ones, like Magda who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Magda was ethnic Hungarian, yet Romanian by birth, born to secular Jewish parents. Magda’s identity was partially created by the political and frequent border changes. As her identity and status kept changing throughout her life, it left indelible marks on her feeling of belonging, loss and lack of security.
The book traces Magda’s life backwards; this form has been inspired by Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘The Venetian Vespers’ in which the poet imagines snippets of life backwards.
El Excluido’ [‘The Excluded’] by the great Spanish writer, David San Jose Martinez.
This book is a wonderful literary achievement, beautifully written with a very rich language, a veil of nostalgia and profound emotional sensitivity. It is a novel but its form – the collection of vignettes, somewhat separated, somewhat connected, is very innovative.
El Excluido is a nuanced character study, exploring the complexity of multilayered relationships, human nature and all the emotions accompanying people while they navigate the alleys of love, friendships and deeper mutual understanding. We witness the protagonists dealing with overwhelming feelings of loss, self-worth, self-doubt, anguish, emptiness, selfishness, jealousy, affection, finding one’s place in the world among others. El Excluido also constitutes the meditation on the identity and its importance on how we relate ourselves to others and how it affects our behaviour.
El Excluido is a demanding and ambitious book that requires a full attention on the reader’s part. In return, the reader can experience a magnificent, compelling and delightful literary feast.
“Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. (…) To get closer to everything that is outside of me. (…)Writing is my only way of absorbing (…) life.”
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri constitutes an astonishingly beautiful discourse exploring the subjects of identity, the meaning of exile, belonging, cultural displacement, alienation, mixed and ‘third’ culture background, as well as learning a foreign language, and quest for a place called ‘home’ and the language called ‘mother tongue’.
We witness the author’s anxieties, her self-imposed linguistic odyssey into the depths of Italian language in order to reshape her own personal identity.
It is a kind of a confessional memoir but with a very few details about Lahiri personal life. It is important to mention that In Other Words was originally written in Italian, Lahiri’s third language which she learnt as an adult. The book was also translated into English by another writer and not Lahiri herself.
Undeniably,In Other Words is a beautiful ode to Italy, its culture as well as language and to self-discipline of acquiring a new language.
By reading In Other Words, we have a privilege of observing an inquiring mind and a sensitive soul of a wonderful writer during her creative process.
“Nothing in Rwanda was left in me but a wound that could never be healed.”
“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide. And I alone preserve the memory of it. And that’s why I am writing this.”
“Where are they? Somewhere deep in the anonymous crowd of the genocide’s victim. A million of them, their lives stolen, their names lost. What is the point of counting up our dead again and again? From the thousand hills of Rwanda, a million shades answer my call.”
This book is a remarkable homage to her murdered family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and is dedicated to “everyone [who] died at Nyamata in the genocide” .
“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”
A few thoughts from “The Book of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935), a Portuguese writer who is the dearest to my heart. Fernando was a Portuguese poet, considered one of the most significant literary figures of the early 20th century, and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language .
Along with Patrick Modiano,E.M. Cioran, Clarice Lispector and Anita Brookner, Fernando Pessoa is undoubtedly my favourite writer.
If you have never read “The Book of Disquiet”, I would encourage you to get a copy of this book in translation of Richard Zenith and read a few paragraphs now and then.
“I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.”
“I’d woken up early and I took a long time getting ready to exist”.
“Why are there not islands for those who feel uncomfortable here, ancient avenues for the lonely to dream in and that others cannot find?”
Medallions by a Polish novelist and essayist, Zofia Nalkowska (1884 – 1954)
Medallions is considered the masterpiece in the world Holocaust literature, deeply influences by Nalkowska’s experience as a member of the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes which was established in 1945. During that time, she visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka and many other sites of mass killing and extermination. She conducted many interviews, listened to survivors’ and eyewitnesses’ testimonies recorded just a few months after the end of the war in 1945. Nalkowska was profoundly affected by her work as a member of the Commission.
Medallions consists of eight short reportages in which survivors, eyewitnesses speak for themselves. There is no mythologisation of the victims: they are neither the heroes, nor the martyrs. In her writing, Nalkowska managed to preserve a deeply personal character of individual experiences. Nalkowska’s style is concise, somewhat laconic, almost economical. The most striking aspect of her reportages is the description of silences where the words are simply too weak to relate the experiences of the protagonists. She records the survivors’ intonations, gestures, postures, emotions of shame, fear, shock as they struggle to relate the atrocities they witnessed. Nalkowska is aware that much of their experiences is left unspoken as there are no words to describe it.
Medallions is not merely a record of one of the darkest chapters in the human history; it is also an incomparable portrayal of the human suffering as nothing else that I have read before.
“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”
“Time only blunts the pain of loss. It doesn’t erase it.”
“I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine.”
– Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine constitutes a meditation about isolation and loneliness among young people in the modern world. Gail Honeyman said somewhere that what inspired her to write this book was reading an article about the experience of one young woman who said that she did not speak to anyone from the time she left work on Friday evening until she was back at work on Monday morning.
For me, the story of Eleanor is very realistic especially after living and working in London for so long. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine portrays a life of a young woman working in Glasgow ; and, it is rather a grim portrayal of the mundanity of everyday life.
“Marcel Proust, Iike all writers of genius, had succeeded – and he more than any other – in this transmutation which is the very essence of literature: a spirit and soul embodied in a rectangle of bound paper, living on after them.”
“The Readers’ Room” by Antoine Laurain
This little mystery book serves as a vehicle to escape the current reality of uncertainty. It is a beautiful and overwhelmingly charming piece of writing combining mystery, murder, love, intrigue and ode to literature and writers.
There is this profound tenderness to Laurain’s writingwhich allows the reader to plunge into the reality of wonder and nostalgia.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is beautifully written, but it should be mainly read for its subject matter. Christy Lefteri portrays the journey of Syrian refugees in a realistic, emphatic, and respectful manner.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells a story of Nuri, a beekeeper from a beautiful ancient Syrian city of Aleppo and his wife, Afra, who worked as an artist. Before the war, they led a peaceful family life surrounded by their loved ones and friends. Then, suddenly everything changes; they lose their son, Sami due to the bomb blast in their garden; they witness beheadings, killings, tortures. Afra due to the blast and shock after losing her child becomes blind. They are forced to flee Syria to survive. We accompany Nuri and Afra as they travel through Turkey, Greece in order to reach the shores of England where Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa lives.
We observe the broken world that Nuri and Afra must pass through in order to find a new ‘home’. The themes of human trafficking, emotional and physical abuse that refugees are subject to, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder that most people fleeing war, conflict, ethnic cleansing experience, child trafficking, unaccompanied child refugees, uncertainty encountered in new countries, dealing with inhumanity of asylum application in the UK as portrayed in the book are explored here.
My stress levels have been skyrocketing over the last weeks and months due to the current situation related to pandemic. For that reason I have been in need of reading something heartwarming, soul-healing, soul-soothing and gentle.
And, this little gem of a book, Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland brought me solace, so needed moments of joy and peace. Stephanie Butland wrote a book which should be prescribed as a medicine to heal one’s soul and to calm one’s heart.
It is an exquisite and profoundly touching storytelling, with many layers of depth and hidden meanings. Lost For Words is a tale about an introverted, quiet, withdrawn and sensitive woman, Loveday Cardew who prefers books to socialising with people. Loveday works as a bookseller in a second-hand bookshop, based in a magical town of York, which is the only place where she feels safe – it is her refuge from the surrounding world and the events from her pasts. It is clear from the beginning that she has some deep-rooted traumas. Lovedayleads her life with as little human interactions as possible. With the arrival of a box filled with books, she is forced to face the events from her past and as the story progresses we learn more about Loveday’s family and childhood.
Through literature, Loveday connects with the inner self and the rest of the world. This is a tale about the importance of books and bookshops in one’s life.
Lost For Words is a very pleasant, gentle and delightful read. If you are an introvert, a bibliophile, I am sure that this book will become very dear to you.
Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland serves like a balm for a soul.
If you enjoy books such as 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeymanor The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, you will also fall in love with Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland.
“At night, here in the library, the ghosts have voices. (…) But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but the space of books remains in existence. ”
– The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel is one of the greatest ‘bookish’ books I have ever read.
The Library at Night is a meditation on the meaning of libraries and the process of reading; it constitutes a homage to libraries of any kind and to the freedom of thought.
Alberto Manguel takes us on a fascinating voyage through the libraries across the centuries and civilizations ranging from the ancient China, Rome, Egypt, Greece, the Aztecs, private libraries of Jorge Luis Borges, Dickens, Aby Warburg, the library of Alexandria, the British Library and many more.
The Library at Night is divided into fifteen chapters, with each one being an essay on a particular meaning of the library as understood by Manguel, ranging from the library seen as myth, oblivion, home, imagination, power, survival, identity …
Each essay contains plethora of quotes, anecdotes, wealth of knowledge, magical stories, and yet each chapter overflows with warmth and charm. These comprehensive, meticulously researched essays allow the reader to learn a lot about libraries, its locations, cataloguing systems, including Dewey Decimal System.
Furthermore, The Library at Night offers many reflections on the nature of literature itself and what it means to be a reader.
Let me introduce you to one of my favourite writers, Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016)
Anita Brookner was an English novelist and art historian, born into the Polish – Jewish family in North London. She was appointed as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge in 1967 and was the first woman to hold this position. Anita became a laureate of the 1984 Man Booker Prize(then the Booker-McConnel Prize) for her novel Hotel du Lac which was also beautifully adapted into a 1986 TV movie featuring Anna Massey in the leading role.
Brookner spent most of the 1950’s living in Paris and completing her doctoral studies at the Ecole du Louvre on the French government scholarship. She never married and cared for her parents as they aged. In one of her interviews, Anita famously called herself “the loneliest woman in London”.
Anita started writing considerably late in life. Her first book “A Start in Life” was published in 1981 when she was 53. She wrote a total of twenty-seven novels and I have given myself a task to read all of them.
Loneliness, solitude, the position of single women and men in the society as they get older, complex, and multi-layered family relationships, including the ones between older children and their elderly parents are the recurring themes in Brookner’s novels.
The Distance by a wonderful South African novelist, Ivan Vladislavic is a magnificent and stunning literary achievement. This is a remarkable, thoughtful read and a real feast for all the bibliophiles. This book is both, global and local; universal and South African – Praetorian; ordinary and surreal; alien and familiar. The ‘distance’ in the book is both, metaphorical and real.
The Distance is a profoundly moving study in family relations during the political and social changes offering a very intimate insight into snippets of the South African society of the 1970s, as well as that of the present day. The story features the variety of themes including love, memory, loss, immigration, our own perception of who we are and its impact on how we perceive the world, race relations in the 1970s and a present-day South Africa and the limitation of language.
‘When we walked side by side, did I not feel his humanity most profoundly? Only now did I begin to understand why it was not always through words that people sought each other out and came to understand each other.’
I was profoundly moved by this gem of a book. In ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’, Ali portrays the deepest corners of the human soul. We, the readers, witness the development of the feeling called ‘love’ from the perspective of a young, extremely sensitive Turkish man, Raif Efendi.
Ali’s writing offers probably one of the best description of a sensitive man, deeply emphatic soul.
“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature” is one of the boldest opening sentences I have ever read. The main protagonist, Ruth, turns to books for comfort while navigating through many ambiguities in her daily life such as taking care of her elderly ailing mother, failed relationships, finding the meaning to her life. Brookner’s prose is as always profound and illuminating, portraying the inner life of the protagonist in the most exquisite manner. Published in 1981, it is Brookner’s first novel which delights with poetic language, beautifully crafted sentences, and painfully authentic characters.
‘Returning to Reims’ by Didier Eribon moved me profoundly. This book is about suffering, pain and shame related to one’s social background. Through showing his personal story of social exclusion, cutting ties with his working class origins, Eribon explores a number of important themes including the history of France over the last 100 years, how France political sphere has changed, how working class people moved from voting for the left-wing to now the right-wing parties.
‘Returning to Reims’ is partially a memoir, partially a sociological study.
Eribon was born into a working class family ina small town in France. He left it to pursue an academic career to become a well known social theorist.
A large part of this book is dedicated to the issue of shame related to one’s SOCIAL IDENTITY in context of SOCIAL and ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES.
“For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret. There it would be, lodging in my breast and nourishing my endless nights, there, in the depths of the humid earth, in that tomb smelling of man stripped of his humanity by shovel blows that flay him alive, snatching away his sight, his voice, and his reason.”
‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ by a Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun narrates a story of political prisoners who took part in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco in 1971. This story is based on real events and author’s interview with a former prisoner Aziz Binebine.
Following the attempt to oust the King, sixty people were incarcerated for eighteen years in a secret prisoncalled Tazmamart which was located in the Sahara Desert. The conditions in that prison were horrid, atrocious. The prisoners were literally buried alive, kept in a complete darkness in a single underground cell of five foot high and nine foot long where they could not stand up nor sit up; scorpions and other insects occupied the cells with the prisoners, with one small hole for air and another hole in the ground used as a lavatory. They only received enough food to make it until next day. The only time they were allowed to go out was to bury other prisoners.
“Distant View of A Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat (1930 – 1996) is a collection of fifteen short stories depicting lives of womenwithin a traditional Muslim society.
Rifaat shows Muslim women who wish to adhere to strict religious teachings and they see men as the ones who do not follow their religious obligations towards women. She challenges this behaviour but her criticism is far from the feminism as perceived in the Western world.
The main subjects in these stories are marriage, death, sexual fulfilment, physical and emotional abuse, loneliness of loveless life, the inability to communicate one’s feelings to others, ageing and relationship between husband and wife from woman’s perspective portrayed within the religious norms and moral values of Islam. Those themes were dealt with such frankness that I have not seen in many contemporary books. Rifaat’s stories shows women who have views, opinions but still within a religious conservative framework.
“Many years later I tried to find that hotel I hadn’t recorded its name or address in the black notebook, the way we tend not to write down the most intimate details of our lives, for fear that, once fixed on paper, they’ll no longer be ours”.
I read Patrick Modiano‘s books whenever I feel overwhelmed with life as his storytelling has this dream-like quality which helps me to transport myself into a different time and epoch.
Shadowy, atmospheric, sublime multi-layered and mesmerising….
The Black Notebook is a tale of M E L A N C H O L Y, loss, disappearance, identity, the passage of time and remembrance. It deals with the fragility of memories, the relationship with people who ‘visit’ our lives for a short period of time but they influence the rest of our journey.
The main protagonist, Jean wanders the same streets of Paris he used to roam forty years earlier as a young man in the company of a young woman called Dannie. Jean is trying to re-trace her life in Paris to understand who she was. His perception of Dannie differs to the picture of her life that comes to light as he re-visits the places they both used to frequent. There is no easy answer to apparently the most mundane questions which is common in Modiano’s prose.
This a little uplifting book recommendation from my side for anyone in need of magical and cosy stories.
“84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff provides one of these pleasant reading experiences. It is a true story written by real life events; this tale is both life-affirming and sad but still a real treat for all the bibliophiles.
This gem consists of letters written between an American writer, Helene Hanff and a British bookseller, Frank Doel and other employees of Marks & Co Bookshop in London which was based in Charing Cross Road. Their correspondence overspanned the period of twenty years, between 1949 and 1968. Sadly, Frank died in 1968 without ever having an opportunity to meet Helene in person.
This little book is about developing a long-distance friendship between two people by the means of letters. Over two decades, they had exchanged gifts, recipes, ideas on books and current world events. What started as an inquiry about one book that Helene was unable to find in New York City, it turned into a magical relationship between two unique souls connected by their love for words and stories.
“(…) but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind”.
“(..) to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day being able to protect what is most valuable to you”.
“We are all migrants through time”.
“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamidis a tale about migration, through places, time, cultures. The story of the main protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, explores many intersecting themes including the position of women living independently in a patriarchal society, a portrayal of destruction and mass violence caused by wars, the meaning of home, of belonging, of being a refugee, migrant through time and places, a portrayal of grief after losing the loved ones and over relationships ending, a relation with one’s family, culture, the significance of our personal dreams and of objects in one’s life and its association with the lives of others, the meaning of religious and cultural rituals, a portrayal of loving and nurturing relationship between parents and their child and the list goes on.
“I feel fortunate at least to open books and be invited to step in, if that book shelters me and keeps me warm, I know I’ve come home”.
“I’m fascinated with how those of us who live in multiple cultures and the regions in between are held under the spell of words spoken in the language of our childhood. After a loved one dies, your senses become oversensitized. Maybe that’s why I sometimes smell my father’s cologne in a room when no one else does. And why words once taken for granted suddenly take on new meanings”.
“I have been willing to overlook in French culture what I would not accept in my own for the privilege of living in translation”.
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan is an interesting book. The author elaborates on such themes as living life through an acquired language and its impact on one’s course of life; the reasons as to why people want to adopt a different culture, the question of acceptance by so-called ‘native speakers’ but also there is a question as to who defines who is a ‘real’ native [speaker]. The book also discusses the reasons related to French intellectuals being attracted by fascism during the 1930s and 1940s and it explores the idea of freedom of speech and ethics related to it.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favourite books I have ever read. This book holds a special place in my heart as it depicts beautifully with all the necessary nuances the most important characteristics related to Russia and Eastern Europe during the course of the tragic 20th century. Having an Eastern European heritage, Bulgakov’s book has always resonated with me at a personal level as no other book ever had.
‘Honeymoon’ by Patrick Modiano is an evocative, melancholic tale, and, at times, it resembles a frame from “film noir” of the 1950s. Modiano presents the lives of the protagonists from the point of an observer, never depicting the reality in a straightforward manner, but rather showing different angles, playing with the memory, the passage of time and changeability of place we used know. The reader must remain focused and to reflect on the past, presence and future to appreciate the full artistry and emotional sensitivity of Modiano’s writing.
Melmoth by Sarah
Perry is a tale of moral complexity related to the human condition. Perry’s
book draws upon Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
written in 1820 which once was a well-read book with a greater significance.
Perry retells the legend of Melmoth, the loneliest being in this world who wanders across the times and places to lure away the ones who committed the acts of an unconceivable cruelty to wander alongside her for eternity. The guilty who are followed by Melmoth must make a choice between being led into the darkness or living with what they have done or what their actions led to.
“I would be reading at my desk, something she deemed part and parcel of my job, and considerate as she was, she kept me company but left me undisturbed. We were two solitudes benefiting from a grace that was continuously reinvigorated in each other’s presence, two solitudes who nourished each other.”
“I identify with outsiders, with the alienated or dispossessed. (…) I like men and women who don’t fit well in the dominant culture, or, as Alvaro de Campos calls them, strangers in this place as in every other, accidental in life as in the soul.”
“It is the duty of those who have survived to bear witness to ensure the dead are not forgotten, nor humble acts of self-sacrifice left unacknowledged. (…) I dedicate this book to the MEN AND WOMEN OF GOODWILL who, generously, with unfailing courage, opposed the will to violence and resisted to the end.”
Françoise Frenkel, No Place to Lay One’s Head, 2019, Pushkin Press
If you love literature and, in particular, books by Patrick Modiano, you will love this compelling beautifully written memoir, No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien ou poser sa tete)by a Polish-Jewish enigmatic writer, Françoise Frenkel (1889-1975) with a preface by Patrick Modiano.