Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Arcadia Books’

See You Tomorrow

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th October, 2014

Tore RenbergSee You TomorrowStavanger, a city of no more than 125,000 souls, is the oil capital of Norway and thus one of the most affluent places in Europe, the gleaming modern office blocks that belie its millennial heritage sharing its striking geographical location with wooden houses and spacious villas with gardens that predate the oil boom. But like all such communities, Stavanger has a section that is distinctly on the wrong side of the tracks, the flotsam and jetsam of the underworld: petty criminals, drug dealers,prostitutes and losers. These are the people that so fascinate the novelist and Norwegian TV personality, Tore Renberg, as well as the film director Erik Skoldbjaerg (whose film based on the NOKAS robbery in Stavanger in April 2004 was shot on location in the city) and the Stavanger-born actor, Stian Kristiansen, who starred in the film Mongoland before moving on to become a film director himself. But it is the latest novel by Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (Arcadia Books, £14.99), that Stavanger is likely to be fixed in the wider public’s imagination. More black comedy than Nordic noir, but essentially sui generis, this 500-page blockbuster flies like a helicopter for a period of three days sweeping down over the homes and other places of action of a dysfunctional group of people with interlocking lives, all of whom who have dark secrets or what psychiatrists would call personality disorders. The cameos range from the horrific to the hilarious, often a shocking combination of both. Renberg has an extraordinary eye for detail, not just for what the eye can see but also for what the characters think, even if they don’t always articulate their thoughts, otherwise often expressed with the only points of reference they can summon up: heavy metal music, horror movies and the odd snatch of literature half-remembered from school. The author brilliantly enters the minds of both his ungainly adult characters and the turbulent teenagers, so that the words, thoughts and actions erupt with the colour and glare and unpredictability of a volcano. Renberg’s is an astounding literary voice and I have not been so excited about a novel for years. The translator, Seán Kinsella, also deserves much credit for a brilliant piece of work. Read it. You won’t regret it.

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Parallel Lines

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 6th April, 2014

Peter LantosParallel LinesSo much has been written about the Holocaust that one might be forgiven in thinking that nothing new could be said about that monstrous period of inhumanity. But every so often a book comes along that proves that the last word has not been spoken. Such is Peter Lantos’s Parallel Lines (Arcadia Books, £9.99). Originally published in 2007, it has justly been repeatedly reprinted in paperback for the benefit of new readers. The sub-title of the book, “A Journey from Childhood to Belsen”, highlights a central strand of the narrative of Lantos’s memoir, but as well as the infant boy’s attempts to make sense of what was happening to him as his parents and he were plucked from their previously rather comfortable existence in the small Hungarian town of Makó, being sent first to a Jewish ghetto and then on to Bergen-Belsen (where his father perished), the story also sees the adult Lantos retracing steps, digging in archives, interviewing people to try to fit together pieces of the jigsaw that had just become a faded memory. There is ample evidence of brutality and suffering, as well as the wickedness of the Nazis, their Hungarian collaborators, and also “ordinary” people who took advantage of the Jews’ dispossession to hep themselves to property both large and small. Salvation for the boy and his mother came when an American unit rescued them from another train transportation away from Belsen that would almost certainly otherwise have taken them to their death. But their return to Makó turned out to be a reason for more trials and tribulation, as the Russians helped install an unforgiving Communist regime which treated them as class enemies. Lantos was very fortunate in being able to get out to pursue higher medical studies in England, which would eventually lead to a new life as a British citizen and an acclaimed writer, as well as distinguished in his medical profession. What is truly remarkable about Parallel Lines, however, is not just its moving portrayal of triumph over adversity but above all the self-evident humanity of the author, his refusal to hate, even his lively sense of humour. For though there is so much misery in the telling there are also moments that make one laugh out loud. A wonderful and memorable book, no matter how many other accounts of the Holocaust one has read.

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Africa, My Passion

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd March, 2014

Corinne Hofmann and PriscillaAfrica My PassionAbout 15 years ago, the German-born writer Corinne Hofmann enjoyed a huge success with an account of her headlong romance, marriage and then break-up with a dashing Samburu warrior in Kenya, The White Masai, which sold over four million copies worldwide. It captured the imagination of many whose own lives are rather humdrum, as well as providing an enjoyable read for European tourists heading for East Africa. It was followed by three other volumes of African memoirs, the last of which, Africa, My Passion, has now appeared in an English edition (translated from the German by Peter Millar), published by Arcadia Books (£12.99). In a sense the book is another love-song, only this time towards a continent rather than to a particular man and his environment. Not all the action is in Kenya this time, as the first part of the story relates a trek through some of the beautiful desert of Namibia (formerly German South West Africa). A middle section sees the narrator visiting various small-scale but successful development projects, ranging from vegetable growing in bags in the huge Nairobi slum, Kibera, to a football team for reformed gang-members. But most readers will enjoy most the third section of the book, which recounts Hofmann’s return to the Samburu lands, to introduce her 20-year-old daughter — who she has raised in Switzerland — to her father. There is no attempt at any full reconciliation (besides, her ex-husband now has a third wife and other children), but the meetings go well with him and her mother-in-law, who was a key figure in her Kenyan experience. And down on the coast south of Mombasa, she manages to track down her old friend, the Masai market-seller Priscilla [picture left]. But as Hofmann says in a postscript, for her a lot of the attraction of Africa is its otherness, its complete contrast to clean, solid, ordered Switzerland, “the intangible, the immovable, the unpredictable, the chaos, the animals, the sheer wildness that is Africa’s alone.”

Link: http://arcadiabooks.co.uk

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Slow Train to Guantanamo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th August, 2013

Slow Train to GuantanamoAmerican presidents have come and gone, but the Castro brothers have hung on to power in Cuba for 54 years; there’s a delicious irony in that. I first visited the island nearly 20 years ago, when its economy was flat on the floor following the withdrawal of Russian subsidies, exacerbating the effects of the unjustifiable US trade embargo and, let’s be frank, the inbuilt incompetence of a centrally-planned economy. Six visits later, in 1999, I made a radio documentary for BBC World Service at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but I haven’t been back since. So I was particularly interested to read Peter Millar’s new book, Slow Train to Guantanamo (Arcadia, £11.99), to see how much has changed. Not that much, it transpires. US dollars no longer operate as a parallel currency, giving enormous privileges to those with access to them; instead they have been replaced by a mickey mouse “convertible peso”, compulsory for foreign tourists, while most Cubans subsist on the national peso one 25th its value, and their ration cards. At least health care and education and in some instances housing are free. There are now more small private businesses, including tiny guesthouses and restaurants, though Peter Millar’s experience of the latter was mainly dire. However, the main curiosity in his book is that he set himself the challenge of travelling from Havana to Guantanamo (the town, not the nearby US base and notorious prison camp) by train. In Cuba that is more of a challenge than one might imagine. And some of the trains are barely holding together, even when they run. But as many other writers such as Paul Theroux have shown, train journeys are a great way of meeting and observing local people, as well as the passing scenery. Alas, Peter Millar’s Spanish was rather basic when he arrived, though it improved during what was actually quite a short stay on the island. So his contacts and the conversations he has with them inevitably remain somewhat superficial, and he not surprisingly focuses on those who Cubans he encounters who are eccentric or physically striking. What saves the book from a certain triteness, however, is the fact that the author can draw on his experiences in central and eastern Europe during the twilight of Communism, especially in East Germany, and therefore make some interesting comparisons. So even if Millar in Cuba isn’t quite the “expert” he was in his earlier book, 1989 The Berlin Wall (which I reviewed when it came out), he is an entertaining companion and at times endearingly self-deprecating in highlighting instances of his cultural naivety.

Link: http://www.petermillar.eu

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1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th September, 2009

Peter Millar book coverAs the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, the bookshops are filling up with commemorative and interpretative volumes. One of the most welcome is Peter Millar’s 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall (Arcadia Books, £11.99), which will be launched at the Frontline Club in London on 1 October. Peter followed me from Oxford into Reuters at the news agency’s old Fleet Street offices and then as the baby in the set-up in the International Press Centre in Brussels, though he lasted longer than I did. I resigned while still in Brussels when I received my first book contract  (for The Great Wall of China), whereas he went on to work for Reuters in East Berlin and then Moscow, before moving over to the Sunday Telegraph and then the Sunday Times.

We didn’t meet up in East Berlin when he was posted there, though I was going in and out of the place frequently at the time, visiting Quakers and other people involved in what became the Swords into Ploughshares movement which was the forerunner of civil unrest that would eventually see the edifice of DDR authority collapse like a house of cards. By the time 1989 came round, I was at Bush House as a sort of ‘rest of the world’ commentator for the BBC World Service and at times rather envied those who could concentrate on the disintegration of European communism. I did go to Berlin again shortly after the Wall came down, however. Rather than  bringing back a chunk of that graffiti-daubed monument, I bought a very fetching Soviet sailor´s cap for US$1 from a tipsy Russian instead.

Peter Millar’s book — whose title is a deliberate nod of homage to the late, great Spike Milligan — is full of telling anecdote and seamlessly blends autobiography with historical reportage. There are a few go0od laughs, but much of the tale is suitably serious. There was indeed euphoria on the night of 9 November 1989, as the Wall was breached — I shed a tear of joy myself, watching the scenes on TV at home in London — but there was anguish too. Peter was able to smile wrily at some details he later discovered in his Stasi files. But for many of my friends and colleagues, what they then found out about the system they had been forced to live under for so many years was in many cases even more traumatising than what they had imagined.

Link: www.arcadiabooks.co.uk

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The Orpheus Trial

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th May, 2009

maureen-duffy-the-orpheus-trialLondon’s alternative gliterati turned out in force at Daunt’s delightfully renovated former Pan bookshop in the Fulham Road in Chelsea this evening, for the launch of Maureen Duffy’s 18th novel, The Orpheus Trail (Arcadia Books, £11.99) — a thriller, of which Maurren gave us all a tantalising taste with a short but powerful reading from an early chapter. I’ll probably have to wait until after the European elections until I get the chance to read the book, but I have been a fan, as well as a friend, of the author since I read a paperback edition of her first evocative memoir, That’s How It Was , when we lived round the corner from each other in Earl’s Court.  Apparently people in London are reading more books — and using public libraries more — during the economic recession, so every cloud has a silver lining, it would seem.

It was interesting to run into Ivan Massow, former Chairman of the ICA and a one-time Conservative anti-European, now back in the UK and looking healthy from a long sojourn in Barcelona, in his new guise as film director, producer and writer. He says he now wonders whether his former Euro-negativism was a mistake. It’s a pity his earstwhile Tory chum William Hague hasn’t yet realised that too.

Link: www.maureenduffy.co.uk

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Bringing Arab Literature to the UK

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th August, 2008

I’ve just received review copies of the first three titles produced by a new imprint on the London publishing scene: Arabia Books. Launched by two of the capital’s most adventurous independent publishers, Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia and Barbara Schwepcke of Haus, Arabia Books intends to bring out at least ten new fiction titles a year, as well distributing more than 50 additional titles of Arabic literature mainly acquired from the American University of Cairo Press (AUC). AUC has helped make known to a wider public such great Egyptian novelists at Naguib Mahfouz (who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature) and Alaa Al Aswany (author of the wonderful The Yacoubian Building), but this new venture will bring a much greater range of Arabic-language novelists to the attention of the English-speaking world.

Arabia Books’ publishing programme does not get officially launched until next month, but that gives us critics time to get stuck into the three initial offerings: Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, Hala El Badry’s A Certain Woman and Bahaa Taher’s Love in Exile. I have often thought that the West would understand the Arab world much better if more Arabic literature were available in English — and vice versa!

Links: www.arcadiabooks.co.uk and www.hauspublishishing.co.uk

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Tessa Codrington’s Tangier

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th May, 2008

 On my way to a television studio to do a Press Review this evening, I was able to call in at Christie’s South Kensington for the launch of Tessa Codrington’s book of photographs Spirits of Tangier (Arcadia, £25). One of the auction house’s best galleries had been taken over to display the finest prints from the book and the event attracted a motley crew of gliterati and High Society, with an appropriate leavening of the raffish. Tessa Codrington is of course a successful Society photographer, as well as being married to the High Tory spread betting millionaire, Stuart Wheeler, and being the owner of a beautiful house in Tangier, inherited from her grandfather.

She first talked about doing this book in the 1970s with the American writer and composer, Paul Bowles, who features prominently in the finished product, which includes archive material from the 1920s as well as Tessa’s photos from the 1970s. Several of the people I knew in that still relatively wicked North African town at the time are also thereby perserved for posterity. My favourite picture, though, is of the Hon. David Herbert, in full drag, as Lady Bracknell in an amateur production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, put on by the Tangier Players.

www.arcadiabooks.co.uk

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