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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Ironically for this being a memoir of sorts, the main story felt more like reading fiction than the novel Ru. The book was written by Byambasuren Davaa, originally from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, and Lisa Reisch, a German who worked with Davaa on her first film, The Story of the Weeping Camel. It was translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer and is published by Virago.

The book is short, 137 pages including a glossary, and contains lots of wonderful photographs of their subjects, bearing witness to the richness of the nomadic life. It was written as an extension of Davaa and Reisch filming one family of Mongolian nomads and follows the same narrative. As such, the flow is uneven and jumps from "scene" to "scene", attempting to tell the family's story through their daughter Nansaa and her dog Zochor. The content is fascinating, a door opening on a culture I knew nothing about; two cultures really as Davaa also shares some of her memories of growing up a city girl in Ulaanbaatar, quite a different experience to that of her nomadic compatriots.

As both women are in the business of storytelling, I was disappointed that there wasn't more detailed exploration of Mongolian life generally though Davaa teases with glimpses such as the fact that by 1989 Mongolia had a literacy rate of almost 100%. The book was an excellent first step in discovering something of the way of life of the Mongolian nomads and a little of the country as a whole but I was left wanting more.

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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Falling into Autumn

As summer fades, we look to our next three Raven Bookclub reads:

I've wanted to read Jean Rhys since hearing a piece about her on Radio 4 several years ago. Her best known novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), is as good a place as any to start. Should you wish for a more in depth discussion, Jane Eyre can be your companion read. (September 25th)

Welcomed with open arms, this is a reread for me. The most autobiographical of his novels, Crossing to Safety (1987) holds a very special place in my heart and is a good starting place for anyone who hasn't yet discovered Wallace Stegner. (October 30th)

I am aware that this is our third book this year with an attachment to Paris, it's not intentional, I promise! The House in Paris (1935) will be very different to either The Chateau or Paris Stories, though it is entirely possible the novel was read by both William Maxwell and Mavis Gallant as both were admirers of Elizabeth Bowen's writing. (November 27th)

A reminder that places are open but limited and it is essential that you let us know in advance if you would like to join in the discussion (7:30pm start time). Email us at hello@ravenbooks .ie

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Thursday, 14 August 2014


Ru is categorised as fiction, and the author insists that the protagonist embodies the experiences of many of the Vietnamese Boat People, not just her, yet it reads like a lyrical autobiography. Opening with the day of her birth, Thúy follows the protagonist's thought flow back and forth through childhood in a wealthy family in Saigon, the invasion of the Communists, escape by boat, the appalling refugee camp in Malaysia, arrival in and acclimatisation to Canada, becoming a mother, and returning with work to Vietnam.

Each anecdote, musing, snippet - most barely a page long - links to the next, often tenuously, the way a conversation will go; something one person says triggering a memory in the other person and so it bounces back and forth. This form never feels loose or accidental, there is a control in the weaving of memories and observations that leaves the reader with a vivid tableau of the drastic changes and adjustments the lives of the Vietnamese Boat People underwent.

At 153 pages, it is a tremendous achievement of the author's to leave the reader with a vastly expanded understanding of life in Saigon during and after the Vietnam War, the unspeakably deplorable conditions of refugee camps, the immigrant experience - simultaneously unique and universal, the expanse of understanding of ones own mother through maturity, the measure of cultural belonging when faced with the reality of a country that had been clung to from afar only to realise that, for better or worse, you are a foreigner there.

I loved reading this book. I loved finding out about Vietnamese culture (don't ever touch them on the head), I loved the complexity of the family and their interactions with one another, I loved the contrast of how immersed she was as a child in Saigon and how separated she was on her return as an adult. I loved her observations on love - how the men in her life were indistinct but the love she felt for her children was all-consuming. It was a wholly engaging and an enlightening read, and I definitely want to read her new novel, Mãn.

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Dog

Kerstin Ekman is, according to her UK publisher Sphere, Sweden's most prominent female fiction writer. If this book is anything to go by, that I can certainly see why. The Dog was first published in 1986, and Sphere published it in English in 2009, translated by Linda Schenck and Rochelle Wright. Thankfully they retained the gorgeous woodcuts by Henrik Krogh which are sprinkled throughout.

It's a slip of a novel at 133 pages (including the dozen or so full page illustrations), more of a novella really. Though it could easily be devoured in a single sitting I found myself wanting to mete it out, to give the story a chance to ferment in my imagination. At the opening, a young puppy follows his mother out from a lakeside cabin into the winter snows and becomes lost. What follows is a tale of survival, told from his perspective, full of scents and sounds as the seasons change and he grows and learns and adapts.

The prose is simple, quiet, measured, engaged. Ekman's descriptions of the Swedish countryside are detailed without ever becoming tedious. This is nature unsentimentalised, her writing is not for the reader seeking a bucolic fantasy as it evokes the reality of beauty and death existing hand-in-hand. It is a story of survival and ultimately the fine line dogs walk between wild animal and domestic pet.

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Saturday, 14 June 2014

Women In Translation

With the buzz for Women In Translation Month gaining momentum, you may be wondering, "Where do I begin? I don't know of any female translated authors". Chances are you actually do, though you may not immediately think of them as WITs. In no particular order, here are some that you're likely to find easily (and one of their well-known titles/series)

1. Muriel Barbery ~ The Elegance of the Hedgehog
2. Fred Vargas ~ Commissaire Adamsberg series
3. Isabel Allende ~ Portrait in Sepia
4. Tatiana De Rosnay ~ Sarah’s Key
5. Banana Yoshimoto ~ Kitchen
6. Yoko Ogawa ~ The Housekeeper and the Professor
7. Delphine de Vigan ~ Nothing Holds Back the Night
8. Tove Jansson ~ The Summer Book
9. Karin Fossum ~ Inspector Sejer series
10. Kjersti Skomsvold ~ The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am

Keep an eye on Biblibio for a more comprehensive list and for more information on #WITMonth.

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Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Summer Book(s)

Our next four Raven Bookclub reads by the numbers:
1 collection of short stories
2 in translation
3 by women, 1 by a man
Authors originated from Finland, Canada, Columbia, England
Authors were born in 1914, 1922, 1927, 1956
Published by Salt, Penguin, NYRB, Sort of Books

The death of Gabriel García Márquez brought an urge to re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude, my first foray into Magic Realism. I remember like snap-shots the images evoked by the novel and I'm looking forward to linking them together again in a full narrative. (May 22nd)

Little Egypt: I was introduced to the writing of Lesley Glaister by a customer and wonder why it is that her novels aren't better known. Beautifully crafted stories often centring on marginalised characters with secrets they'll hardly breathe even to themselves. (June 19th)

We herald July with The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, best know for her Moomin stories written for children (and beloved by adults). I felt the chill of icicles reading The Winter Book, let's hope this tale brings the warmth of abundant sunshine. (July 17th)

Paris Stories: I confess to being a late-comer to Mavis Gallant, discovering her only a week or two before she died. Jhumpa Lahiri's remembrance of her piqued my interest to explore her writing further. (August 28th)

A reminder that places are open but limited and it is essential that you let us know in advance if you would like to join in the discussion (7:30pm start time). Email us at hello@ravenbooks .ie

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Friday, 13 December 2013

Spring Ravens

As we near the Winter Solstice, it's time to start preparing for the shift towards Spring - snowdrops, baby lambs, and a whole host of new titles to tickle our literary fancy. The first choice for the Raven Readers is however an older title, one to tide us over from the depths of darkness into the slow emergence of "a stretch in the evenings". I first read William Maxwell over the summer and was deeply impressed; I hope The Chateau will live up to my high expectations. There is an interview with him here which is well worth perusing. (January 30th)

Just so you know, Willy Vlautin has a reputation for breaking hearts. I don't doubt that reading his shopping list would leave me with a tear in my eye. The Free is his fourth novel and opens with Leroy, a young, wounded, Iraq veteran, waking to a rare moment of clarity, his senses flooded with the beauty of remembering who he is but the pain of realising it won't last. (February 27th)

March is a very special read as Liz is a dear customer of ours. Unravelling Oliver is, in the words of her publisher Penguin Ireland, "a complex and elegant study of the making of a sociopath". It might also be described as "a very dark tale about neglect, abandonment, grief and lost children" (March 27th)

Finally in our Spring cycle is Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys. Her previous novel Olive Kitteridge deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and this offering promises to be no less impressive. (April 24th)

A reminder that places are limited and it is essential that you let us know (i)if you would like to join in the discussion (7:30pm start time) (ii)if you would like us to supply you with a copy of the book. Email us at hello@ravenbooks .ie

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