Immanuel Mifsud – L-istejjer Strambi ta’ Sara Sue Zammit

Caution: Long winded introduction:

Back in late 2002, I after my shift at a bookstore, I would hop on a bus, make my way to the capital city and spend the rest of the afternoon trawling… more bookstores (there were quite a few so it was easy to burn two hours browsing) One day I was flipping through the new publications – both local and foreign and I came across this black book with a saturated photograph of a teenager’s face. There in weird writing was the titile: l-istejjer Strambi ta’ Sara Sue Zammit (The Strange Stories of Sara Sue Zammit) by Immanuel Mifsud, who I had no idea who he was, incidentally this book was his fifth publication. Later on during my bookstore hopping, I kept seeing this cover on the shelves. The next day on the forum I used to frequent there was a lot of buzz about the book and it’s originality. Not too mention that it was one of first books to break away from the more stuffy Maltese literature due to the descriptions of drugs and use of profanity – something unthinkable then.

I kept it in my mind, hoping that I’ll buy it one day.

I soon forgot about that and the book went out of print.

A year ago after my Maltese lit renaissance, I decided to ask fellow booklovers about essential Maltese fiction and ..Sara Sue Zammit cropped up frequently. Naturally I was annoyed for not picking it up 19 years ago.

Fast forward to 2022 and I was gifted a copy of the book and, well, I read it.

Within these 8 stories Immanuel Mifsud has managed to give a snapshot of a more authentic side of Maltese culture, mostly the unappealing one. I do like the fact that some are cleverly disguised and do contain many layers ‘Proset tal-Programm’ (Well Done for the Programme) is one such example: a talk show desperately needs some juicy topics as the rival program is bringing in more interesting subjects and discussing cutting edge topics. Thus a Russian migrant who has resorted to sex work and has been beaten is interviewed. What comes up is a display of blatant racism and a clear case of how the media can manipulate the gullible viewer.

Elsewhere Vjolini (Violins) is about how certain attitudes can lead to the disintegration of a relationship. Rubi is a prescient story about internet social media behaviour and the title story takes the form of a self interview which encapsulates sexuality, politics, toxic masculinity and Maltese traditions. For a book written in 2002, this is forward thinking stuff and this still are relevant topics to this day.

Not all stories are subtle, opener Ultras is a tale of football hooliganism and racism. Gżejjer (Islands) is quite open look a Maltese club culture, the inefficiency of the law and sexism among the police force.

One factor which put me off from buying the book was because I was scared that Immanuel Mifsud’s command of Maltese would be difficult but it’s flowing, inventive and darkly humorous. I do like the fact that some stories take on different forms; there’s MIRC text, mobilespeak and or long pieces of dialogue: As I said, these things were rare in Maltese literature so it’s interesting to see how an author manage to break all those rules. Along with another writer who didn’t follow the rules, Ġużè Stagno, these two writers managed to create a new simplistic, realistic, hard edged view of Maltese culture.

… Sara Sue Zammit can be seen as a gateway for Maltese writers not leave out their lofty ideas, but at the same time, despite mentions of the MIRC and old fashioned texting, the book does manage to sound contemporary> it’s also can be seen as a classic of Maltese literature and I can definitely see why.

Sally Rooney – Beautiful World, Where are you?

Sally Rooney is an author of whom I have loads of conflicting feelings about. I do like her books, but I don’t like when critics praise her writing as original. One can see elements of her work in Jane Austen, Helen Fielding, and to a certain extent, early Margaret Atwood. There is a sort of formula in her two books, Conversations with Friends and Normal People : girl meets guy, girl or guy has conflicting feelings or is in a situation which creates conflicting feelings, relationship works out or not. In between there are references to mobiles and internet culture, oh and her characters are self aware to a point where a generation Xer like me begins to feel old.

On the surface Beautiful World, Where Are You has all the trappings of a typical Sally Rooney novel; the plot consists of four friends: Felix, Alice (a writer), Simon (a politician) and Eileen ( who has an on/off relationship with Simon and is Alice’s best friend) who fall in and of love. The internet and other forms of social media gets a lot of text space, not to mention mobile phone usage. It would be easy to dismiss Rooney as an author who has clearly run out of ideas and will stick to rehashing the same plot again but she throws a curveball.

A good number of the chapters consist of Alice and Eileen emailing each other and this is where the book goes into different direction. These emails are about the contemporary novel, sexuality, social class and religion. It was at this point I realised that Sally Rooney is opening up and allowing us readers to see some aspects of her that we were not able to see before. One example is where Alice (who is clearly Sally Rooney) complains that documenting life is the downfall of the novel and yet , for the third time round Sally Rooney is documenting life. Sally Rooney knows what she is doing and maybe Beautiful World will be the last time she’ll write a novel delving into the intricacies of relationships.

Although a new Sally Rooney is emerging, I still have quite a few gripes about this novel; it’s too long and the constant musings about relationships begins to grate, the self awareness of the characters descends into parody and the new elements do give the novel a much needed kick but they could have been explored even more, especially the bits dealing with religion, which is treated in a shallow manner. The more optimistic thing to say is that this may be a transitional novel and these are just tiny signposts to be further explored.

Beautiful World … is not a bad book but there are too many flaws for me to fully appreciate it. I guess the nicest thing to say is that if there is a third series of Fleabag then Beautiful World, Where Are You is a perfect source of inspiration.

Violet Kupersmith – Build Your House Around My Body

Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body has a lot of aspects which I gravitate to in a novel. The main one is a plot which consists of different characters and then are joined together by little clues until a full story forms. Thus, the novel becomes a sort puzzle.

The main protagonist of the novel is Winnie, a half States/Vietnamese who decides to move to her mother country to teach English. She soon discovers that the job is not really her thing and experimenting with different houses, partners and lifestyles in order to discover herself.

The plot consists of different elements; a missing rich girl, a French/Vietnamese man who has an unusual talent, a rubber plantation yard, a Frenchman with seven toes, a policeman and snakes, and that is just a small taste of the bizarre characters and situations found in this novel.

What makes Build Your House Around My Body such a fascinating story is that it mutates and changes shape. In some chapters there’s pure horror, some read like a Roald Dahl short story, others give a historical insight to what Vietnam went through from the colonisers to it’s urbanisation. Ultimately I saw the story as a metaphor for women breaking free from the patriarchy and surging ahead. This is especially seen in the novel’s last third. This book pushes boundaries and yet has flowing prose.

Surprising , shocking , playful and never ever predictable Build Your House Around My Body is a fantastic novel that is daring in every single way. This book challenges the reader with it’s twists and turns and at the same time asks the reader to notice the details which link up the different chapters. It also serves as a cautionary to those who violate certain rights (or rites for that matter). I will guarantee that you will come out a changed person. A tall order but with this book, definitely possible.

Many thanks to Oneworld for providing a copy of Build Your House Around My Body

Olga Tokarczuk , Jennifer Croft (Translator) – The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob is considered to be Nobel prize winning author, Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece. Considering that the I loved the stellar Flights and her ‘light’ novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead , I was eager to see why this hefty 912 page tome has gathered so many accolades.

The titular Jacob is actual historical character Jacob Frank, a religious leader who preached against Jewish beliefs of the time and gathered followers as he travelled from Poland to Turkey and vice versa. Eventually he was proclaimed as the Messiah, only to convert to Christianity. Despite being imprisoned his popularity increased, in his last days he was based in Vienna and his daughter took over the cult.

Since The Books of Jacob is a Tokarczuk novel, things are not as simple. There is a huge cast of characters, whose backstory and connection to Jacob are given at various points in the novel. One such example is the first messiah, Sabbatai Zevi who gets a tiny mention but much later in the book he has a chapter devoted to him. Essentially this is a book to read in big chunks as more connections and backstories are revealed. Think of the book as a flower blooming in slow motion: the more you pay attention, the more it unfolds.

The books of Jacob has a plethora of themes but here are some that stood out:

The idea of Babel and reverse Babel : right from the beginning one of the many characters, a priest called Father Chmielowski approaches a major protagonist Rabbi Elisha Shorr and tries to prove to him that Babel is scientifically incorrect and yet Rabbi Shorr is not understanding him due to the fact that both people speak different languages.

The ‘Babel effect’ occurs throughout the novel. Characters have difficulty in communicating, new dialects spread out. To add to this division, the book takes place during the years 1748 – 1816, a time when Europe was going through many changes: new territories were annexed, some stopped existing, Poland had it’s borders changed, Vienna grew to be the capital. Elsewhere the French revolution took place. All these changes just created more schisms in society and at the same time a more modern era was approaching.

The reverse Babel comes in the form of Jacob Frank; by learning languages and understanding dialects and relating to people’s discontent with the religion they practise, he is uniting. By the mid section of the book Jacob Frank has amassed a substantial cult which continues after his death in 1791.

Treatment of Jews: In The Books of Jacob, we readers see the attitudes towards Jews, they are persecuted, seen as odd, at times they are evicted. Diasporas feature. As far I know this has always been a problem whether it is the crusades or the holocaust. Yet they are the chosen nation and are resilient, waiting for the messiah.

The character of Jacob Frank: This is an interesting one. Is Jacob Frank a tyrant? saviour? or pervert? Are his intentions to change the world? or does he just want to sleep with men and women? Is he a good father and husband? The novel presents all aspects of Frank. it neither glorifies him or makes him out to be a scoundrel. The one thing that we are certain of is that his words manage to attract people and he was looked up to by many of his followers.

There is also a semi mystical element to the book by mentions of Kabbalistic philosophy, debates over the validity of the Holy Trinity and a character whose soul watches over Jacob’s exploits, in fact we readers never see Jacob Frank’s POV, it is always through secondary sources.

The Books of Jacob is not an easy read, due to all the detail . Yet it was a book I found difficult to put down. I had to see the story develop and the more I researched about Jacob Frank, the more I wanted to see how Olga Tokarczuk would develop his character. Plus I just loved how Olga Tokarczuk managed to link all the protagonists destinies cleverly. Definitely kudos to Jennifer Croft for managing translate this awesome tome.

This novel has so much breadth and scope that one cannot help but marvel at it. Ambitious, daring and challenging (in the sense that questions one’s views of history) The Books of Jacob is a piece of work like no other. If one thought that Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy was the definitive historical novel, think again. This is the Burj Khalifa of historical fiction. At this point the only person who I think will be able to overcome this is Olga Tokarczuk herself.

Matthew Schembri – Ħassartek

When conceptual artist Matthew Schembri tried to write a follow up to the excellent Stessi (translation; Selfie), he found himself struggling with writers block. As a result he deconstructed Stessi by erasing the text. The end product is a book consisting of 231 erasure poems.

Ħassartek (translation: I erased you) is an interesting book. Although it’s roots lie in Stessi, it is not a companion piece to that novel. In fact whereas Stessi was basically, a magical realist tale written for a teenage audience, Ħassartek goes much deeper. These 231 pieces are personal bordering on the confessional at times. There are declarations of the heart, poems of lust and longing. Other poems are about loss and desire. Although these poems can be seen as separate entities, they can also be read as a whole piece as well. Having read Stessi a week ago, I noticed some similar words in Ħassartek and yet they took on a new, introspective meaning.

To exemplify the notion of being erased, the author held an exhibition where he displayed erasers with words from the book on them and let the audience take one home, thus the notion of the book’s text was being dispersed further.

It is well known that through destruction something new emerges and that can be said of Ħassartek. There is something transformative going on, rather like a butterfly exiting a cocoon. Thus if Matthew’s aim was to (metaphorically) disappear completely, then that did not work. Instead we saw an aspect of the author that makes him more prominent, however if the notion was to erase an old life in order to present something new then I think the concept of erasure worked.

As a DJ I love seeking out cover versions, remixes, and , especially, artists reinterpreting their own songs, just for the simple reason that a piece of art can always take on different meanings. Whilst reading Ħassartek that same feeling of excitement emerged. This is proof that any text can carry new meanings. Ħassartek is the equivalent of the moustache on the Mona Lisa: Something different and pays off with the sub messages that rise to the surface.

The book concludes with two afterwords, one by Glen Calleja and the other by Raphael Vella. Both give insight to the project and are worth reading.

Many thanks to the Author for providing a copy of Ħassartek

Mary Lawson – Crow Lake

After reading Mary Lawson’s Booker longlisted novel, A Town Called Solace last year, I decided to check out her debut book, Crow Lake.

Crow Lake deals with the Morrisons, a family of six who live in a farming district in northern Ontario. One day their parents die and this leads to the eldest brother assuming the role of family caretaker.

The rest of the book is about the trials this family goes through. Fights, relationships, major decisions etc. The story is narrated by third child, Kate, who is presently reading zoology and is wondering about her relationship with her husband. Eventually Kate has to return to the village as one of her brothers children is holding a party and she wonders if she can cope with returning to her past.

Crow Lake is a story about family ties, that’s obvious from the start, however it is also about how the environment can influence a person. Kate’s choice of career stems from the fact that she was surrounded by nature and that love was nurtured by her brother.

The book itself is good. Writing style flows, characters are strong and the plot works. The thing is, I found it lacking flair. Think of Crow Lake like a meat and two veg sort of thing. It’s good, wholesome and faultless but some extra additions would make one appreciate it more.

Ambrose Parry – A Corruption of Blood

A Corruption of Blood is the third in this series of thrillers set in mid 19th century Edinburgh. For those who do not not, these books focus , mostly, on Will Raven – a budding physician who is studying under Dr. James Simpson (who actually did exist) and solves a series of crimes with his doctor in training Sarah Fisher.

This time the plot is more intricate and darker. A dead baby is discovered in a river with very little clues surrounding it. At the same time, a well known person in Edinburgh circles has been poisoned and his son, who Raven dislikes, seems to be the killer. To add more complications, a new housemaid has given away her child and would like Sarah to find it. All these happenings are connected and cleverly.

A Corruption of Blood (the saying refers to unjust means of receiving an inheritance) is not only about the crime. The reader gets some insight to attitudes and practices that were common in that era. In this case the focus is upon the act of baby farming, where poor people and sex workers had to give their children to people, who would sell them to ‘deserving’ families. There’s also views regarding the women practicing medicine and social class divides. Aside from this there is the more dramatic aspects of the book dealing with Raven’s feeling for Fisher and his upcoming marriage to Eugenie, a doctor’s daughter.

As always, the Raven and Fisher books are compulsive reading. Once one starts one cannot move until the last page. Despite the fact that quite a bit of the book concerns Will Raven’s emotions towards Sarah and Eugenie, A Corruption of Blood is still a thrilling ride. In fact, i would go as far as saying that this is probably the most complex the series. It also ends on a sort of cliff hanger so it will be interesting to see what Raven and Fisher will do next.

My other reviews of The Raven and Fisher series : The Way of all Flesh and The Art of Dying

Many thanks to Canongate for providing a copy of A Corruption of Blood

Jessie Burton – The Confession

I have a bit of a hit and miss relationship with Jessie Burton’s books. I could not stand The Miniaturist , I thought The Muse was great and now The Confession…. Well let’s get into it.

As always I’ll go into the good.

The Confession is about Rose. Her father brought her up but has never met her mother. After dropping some clues, Rose discovers that her mother was once romantically linked with a famous author. The more she investigates, the more she discovers her past.

The book then jumps into the the 80’s where Rose’s mother meets the author and they have a tumultuous relationship.

Jessie Burton is great at time jumping. The 1982 sections, segue nicely into the 2017 ones. Generally this can be jarring but it isn’t. I will also say that the writing is solid and flowing. Unfortunately that’s all I can say really.

One trope I cannot stand in literature is the liar one; through stupid coincidences (there are way too many of those in the book) Rose manages to create a fake persona in order to work with the author. Throughout over a 100 agonizing pages, I had to read about Rose pretending to be someone else and everyone in the book believing it AND she manages to dodge EVERY SINGLE situation which may expose her. Finally she does tell the truth and from there onwards the book improved a bit.

Another trope I cannot stand is glitzy, screwed up Hollywood lives: a good chunk of the book takes place in Hollywood with Rose’s mother and the author cavorting around – BORING.

I also hate predictability – Rose pretends to visit Costa Rica and she falls upon some money – obviously it’s just the right amount to go to… you guessed it! COSTA RICA. Spare me!

So no, this book did not work out for me. It’s a pity because I like my first read of the year to be a strong one but ah well.

Book Round Up: December 2021

December was embarrassingly good, also for the first time ever, I read 5 non-fiction books AND I liked them all, I also managed a classic, three books in Maltese and a historical thriller. Pretty eclectic if you ask me.

It’s a bit difficult to choose a highlight but my ‘book of the month’ would be Richard Powers Generosity

Nadia Mifsud’s Zifna f’xifer irdum comes a close second. I also enjoyed The Workshop of Filthy Creation

All the non-fiction books were enlightening: Pretentiousness, It gets me Home, this Curving Track, An Apartment on Uranus and The Intimate Resistance made me feel smarter.

Strangers I’ll Never Forget reminded me that we all need a good laugh, Stessi is an example of strong story crafting, On Earth We’re briefly Gorgeous broke me and An Unrestored Woman rekindled my love for interlinked short stories and Indian authors.

As I said, a strong month.

What’s next.

The usual – one book from the TBR pile and another from the review pile. I’ve got the Books of Jacob soon, which I am looking forward to.

How was your December?

Matthew Schembri – Stessi

I guess if one can could summarise Matthew Schembri’s debut novel Stessi (Selfie), it would be Marvel meets Neil Gaiman.

Sven adores his uncle Robert, however he does notice that there’s something strange about him, namely his aloofness, the fact that he spends long periods of time abroad , that he always carries a camera with him and why does Sven feel ill when his uncle is away?

On Sven’s 13th birthday , his uncle passes on the camera, and his life then changes. What happens next becomes a vortex of frightening moments and many secrets are unveiled. Finally Sven has to make a choice which will take his life into different directions. All I can say that the climax is worthy of a blockbuster film.

One can see Stessi as a commentary on the narcissistic selfie/social media culture. In one scene Sven goes on a talk show where the arrogant host falls on live TV. She’s not worried if she hurts but rather how people on social media sites will turn her mishap in a GIF and spread it around – spoiler: it happens. Also a selfie competition is at the center of the plot, and to see Sven and his best friend uploading selfies (albeit creative ones) on Facebook AND getting likes goes to show how things have evolved.

Stessi could be taken as an example of excellent storytelling: The characters are believable, the writing flows and the plot is well structured and, although the book has a fantastical element, the strength of the prose makes it credible. Incidentally the author is known as a conceptual artist so Stessi did actually lead to a second phase of the project but that review will be up in a few weeks’ time. At this point, enjoy and immerse oneself in this novel, it’s very easy to.

Many thanks to the author for providing a copy of Stessi