Monday, 18 June 2018

Donaldson, Julia "The Gruffalo"

Donaldson, Julia "The Gruffalo" - 1999

A happy book. A funny book. A book about an animal that doesn't exist and therefore might have terrible claws and terrible jaws but can't scare you because after all ... it does not exist.

This was a huge favourite in our house when the boys were little. It reminds you of a fairy tale but is a modern storybook. Lots of beautiful illustrations, a funny but simple story, not as short as some other board books, already a "big kid" book but equally enjoyed by kids of any age. It rhymes, you can almost sing along to the rhythm, but you can definitely growl and hoot along, imitate all the animal sounds from the forest.


From the back cover:

"A mouse is taking a stroll through the deep, dark wood when along comes a hungry fox, then an owl, and then a snake. The mouse is good enough to eat but smart enough to know this, so he invents . . . the gruffalo! As Mouse explains, the gruffalo is a creature with terrible claws, and terrible tusks in its terrible jaws, and knobbly knees and turned-out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of its nose. But Mouse has no worry to show. After all, there’s no such thing as a gruffalo. . ."

I saw it's also available in a Scottish edition. That should be fun.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos "Gaudí in Manhattan"

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos "Gaudí in Manhattan" (Spanish: La Mujer de Vapor) - 2009

A short story about a young architecture student who can go to New York with his much admired hero Antonio Gaudí. A very short story. But it was by one of my favourite authors, so I had to read it. And it was just as beautiful as his novels. I just don't get why he didn't make it into a whole book.

A rich person offers Gaudí to pay for the rest of the Sagrada Familia and it turns out to be a young woman … or was it all a dream? A magic realism story like no other. Plus, there were some great illustrations and pictures in the booklet.

From the back cover (translated):

"A young student of architecture accompanies the famous architect to America, where Antonio Gaudí is to receive the order to build a skyscraper. But when they arrive in Manhattan, things take a different course."

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Hertmans, Stefan "War and Turpentine"

Hertmans, Stefan "War and Turpentine" (Dutch/Flemish: Oorlog en terpentijn) - 2013

I had not heard about this author before even though he probably should be known in the Netherlands since there are not so many countries that write in Dutch. When it was suggested in our book club, I thought this would be a good choice to read another Belgian author.

And it was. Stefan Hertmans tells about his grandfather's life according to the memoirs the latter hat written. It is a heartwarming tale about a young man who was 23 when World War I started and had to go into a war nobody wanted. His father had been a painter and so was he. We hear a lot about that part of his life but even more about his life in the trenches in the fields of Flanders.

The story is us about the life of the protagonist as a child, a young man, a married man and later, an old man, partly through his own diary. But its also a story about the author and how he grew up with his grandfather.

A nice story, well told, very picturesque.

I read this in the original Dutch language.

From the back cover:

"Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans' grandfather gave him a couple of filled exercise books. Stories he’d heard as a child had led Hertmans to suspect that their contents might be disturbing, and for years he didn’t dare to open them.

When he finally did, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the frontlines during the First World War and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.

Drawing on these diary entries, his childhood memories and the stories told within Urbain’s paintings, Hertmans has produced a poetic novelisation of his grandfather’s story, brought to life with great imaginative power and vivid detail.

War and Turpentine is an enthralling search for a life that coincided with the tragedy of a century - and a posthumous, almost mythical attempt to give that life a voice at last."

We discussed this in our book club in May 2018.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Schami, Rafik "The Dark Side of Love"

Schami, Rafik "The Dark Side of Love" (German: Die dunkle Seite der Liebe) - 2004

Rafik Schami has managed to get on my list of all time favourite authors with just three of his books. Luckily, he has written a lot more so I am looking forward to more great novels.

Rafik Schami once said you cannot understand the history and present of the Arabs without the prohibition of love. And with this book he has shown us a great example and hopefully helps us to understand each other better. Apparently, it took him 30 years to write this book. 30 years well spent, even if this had been his only one.

His real name is Suheil Fadél, his pen-name means "friend of Damascus". He fled from his country in 1970 and settled in Germany where he still lives today. All his books are written in German. This book is slightly autobiographical.

This is the story of Farid Mushtak, born in Syria in 1940, into a Syriac-Christian family (like the author). His father is a baker - like the author's …

This is the story of Farid's love to Rana Shahin, a love that cannot be because their families are arch-enemies.

This is the story of the families Mushtak and Shahin who have been enemies for so long that hardly anyone remembers how it all started.

This is the story of Damascus, the capital city of Syria, a city that has lived through difficult times for a long long time.

And finally, this is the story of Syria and its history. Lots of information, especially if you have never read a book about this country.

The book has about 1,000 pages but at the end you think, this was far too short, could have been twice as long. It's just that brilliant!

I read this in the original German language.

Translation of the German back cover:

"In his opulent story mosaic, Rafik Schami tells of a love that must not be, of blood revenge, tribal feuds and family strife, and spans an oriental-colourful picture arc over a century of Syrian history."

Even though this is a lot shorter, it's much better than the blurb on the English back cover which only describes the beginning of the novel:

"A dead man hangs from the portal of St Pauls Chapel in Damascus. He was a Muslim officer and he was murdered. But when Detective Barudi sets out to interrogate the man's mysterious widow, the Secret Service takes the case away from him. Barudi continues to investigate clandestinely and discovers the murderers motive: it is a blood feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans, reaching back to the beginnings of the 20th century. And, linked to it, a love story that can have no happy ending, for reconciliation has no place within the old tribal structures. Rafik Schamis dazzling novel spans a century of Syrian history in which politics and religions continue to torment an entire people. Simultaneously, his poetic stories from three generations tell of the courage of lovers who risk death sooner than deny their passions. He has also written a heartfelt tribute to his hometown Damascus and a great and moving hymn to the power of love."

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Hunt, Ken; Taylor, Mike "Xenophobe's Guide to the Aussies"

Hunt, Ken; Taylor, Mike "Xenophobe's Guide to the Aussies" - 1995

I found this book on an airport. And since my son has lived "down under" for a while and I have many lovely friends there, I couldn't leave it behind.

Even if you don't plan to go there and don't know any Aussies, this is hilarious. One of the writers is Australian, the other one has lived there most of his life, I think that is a great combination to get the particularities of a a people.

In any case, a funny read, a hilarious but very loving description.

What a lovely way of explaining to foreigners what is so special about Oz and its inhabitants, how they came to be how they are and what you should know before embarking on a voyage there. I also liked the masses of words that are explained.

Even if you don't plan to go there and don't know any Aussies, this is hilarious. One of the writers is Australian, the other one has lived there most of his life, I think that is a great combination to get the particularities of a a people.

In any case, a funny read, a hilarious but very loving description. And it also makes clear that we are all the same, after all. I can explain how funny this book is by an example. Apparently, the reason, they say "G'day" is, it has to be so brief because of the flies. The longer your mouth is open, the more flies crawl in." LOL

There is just one part of the book I don't agree with and I'm sure it wasn't written by the authors. The declaration for Xenophobia is "A phobia about foreigners, probably justified, always understandable." Nope, sorry, I don't understand it. In our day and age where people either travel the world themselves or know about a hundred who do and where we have the world at our fingertips - literally! - xenophobia is NEVER justified.

From the back cover:

"This is one of a series of guides designed to tell the truth about other nations, using sweeping generalizations and observations as a base, detailing what to expect and how to cope with it. The guides try to explain why things are done the way they are and they try to allay the feelings of trepidation with which the xenophobe approaches new territory. This particular book looks at Australians.

A guide to understanding the Aussies which takes an insightful, laconic look at their character and attitudes.

Appearances are deceptive
Never make the error of underestimating the Aussies. They love to portray a casual disregard for everything around them, but no-one accidentally achieves a lifestyle as relaxed as theirs.

Logic down under
Aussies will twist any statistics to their own ends. One statistic doing the rounds was that 40% of drivers in accidents had been drinking. Since this left 60% of drivers who hadn't had a drop, but who still had accidents, it must obviously be safer to drink and drive.

Let's talk 'strine'
The Aussies are not subtle and neither is their language. They will say what they mean. The problem is that the words they use don't always mean what they say. For example: bluey - someone who has red hair; you're orright - you are absolutely super; itsa bit warm - it is probably 120¼F in the water bag (water bags are always hung in the shade); that'd be right - I don't believe it either.

Out in the outback
Nature is the biggest single influence on the Aussie attitude. And a very harsh and unforgiving influence it is. Reality, totally uncontrollable, is never far outside the suburban limits."

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Kross, Jaan - Professor Martens' Departure

Kross, Jaan "Professor Martens' Departure" (Estonian: Professor Martensi ärasõit) - 1984

I meant to read a book about Estonia for my project "Travel the World Through Books".

And I read a book about Estonia through the life of an Estonian diplomat under the Russian Czar, Friedrich Fromhold Martens. So much history there. Professor Martens wrote a lot of books about international law and was highly involved in establishing what we would call International Law now. He was among those politicians who negotiated after the end of the Russo-Japanese war and was even falsely reported of receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace which he certainly would have deserved. But he received various other prizes and honorary degrees. One of his major achievements was the establishment of the World Court in The Hague.

So, even though this claims to be a novel, it reads as a biography and it is probably more accurate than many others who claim to be one. It doesn't take long while reading this book that you want to know more about the character and whether he really was as described. Google is full with articles about him. And this book is full with details, a very rich tale of an interesting life in an area we still don't know enough about.

From the back cover:

"Widely read in Europe, the Estonian novelist Jaan Kross is considered one of the most important writers of the Baltic region, and is an often-named candidate for the Nobel Prize.

His new historical novel, Professor Martens’ Departure, is written in a classic elegiac style reminiscent of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and it evokes the complex world of czarist Russian society at the turn of the century. The character of Professor Martens is based on an actual official of the czarist reign, a distinguished Estonian jurist curiously reminiscent of Henry Kissinger.

Faced with a dire financial crisis in Russia, Professor Martens orchestrates a major loan from the French government to stave off famine; as time passes, however, he realizes that he has managed to perpetuate a brutal regime that keeps its political prisoners in chains.

This fictional memoir, written at the end of Martens’ life, finds him reliving his past and questioning the degree to which he has sacrificed himself to maintain a corrupt regime, one that ultimately disdains both him and his people. Considered an outsider by the czar’s adviser, Martens is nonetheless needed for his skills. Still, he is marginalized and kept in the shadows.

Far more than just a political or philosophical novel, Professor Martens’ Departure is an astonishing reconstruction of czarist Russia."

Monday, 4 June 2018

Boom, Corrie "The Hiding Place"

Boom, Corrie ten with Sherrill, John and Elizabeth "The Hiding Place. The Triumphant Story of Corrie Ten Boom" (De Schuilplaats) - 1972

If you have read Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl", you should also read this book. It's the story of a family who was hiding people like the Frank family and what happened to them.

How someone can watch these atrocities - both on the side of the enemy and of those of your own people - and still stay so positive, believe there is a meaning to all this ... that's beyond me. I am grateful that these kind of people exist and would hope that I'd react the same way when I would have to make the decision.

In any case, the ten Boom family was part of the Dutch Underground. They hid anyone who needed help, mostly Jews, and helped them leaving the country.

I especially liked the father who was such a model for his family. Here is a quote that shows it all:
"Father held the baby close, his white beard brushed its cheek, looking into the little face with eyes as blue and innocent as the baby's own. At last he looked up at the pastor. 'You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.'"

Another quote I would like to talk about:
"Strangely enough, it was not the Germans or the Japanese that people had most trouble forgiving; it was their fellow Dutchmen who had sided with the enemy."
I do understand that. A lot of the Germans or Japanese had no choice but these people had betrayed their own. Mind you, after having lived in the Netherlands for almost nineteen years now, I disagree that they were all so forgiving of the Germans, there are plenty around who still haven't forgotten.

It was quite interesting to see how they built the hiding place, how they managed to put another room into a house without anyone noticing.

Granted, the book is quite religious, Corrie ten Boom and her family were Calvinists and belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church which was very strict and very conservative. But that was part of their reason for doing what they did. In any case, the book is totally worth reading.

From the back cover:

"Corrie ten Boom stood naked with her older sister Betsie, watching a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner.' Oh, the poor woman,' Corrie cried. 'Yes. May God forgive her,' Betsie replied. And, once again, Corrie realized that it was for the souls of the brutal Nazi guards that her sister prayed. Here is a book aglow with the glory of God and the courage of a quiet Christian spinster whose life was transformed by it. A story of Christ's message and the courageous woman who listened and lived to pass it along -- with joy and triumph!"