The Written World

THE WRITTEN WORLD with Sarla Langdon    

A to Zion – The Definitive Israeli Lexicon

by Gilad Atzmon and Enzo Apicella (Fanfare £9.99)

What a pleasure it is to see a bit of fun in a book about a grim political situation: A to Zion is a collection of satirical one-liners that are as funny as they are bitter and self-deprecating. Musician Gilad Atzmon and eminent cartoonist Enzo Apicella have pooled their talents to bring comic relief to the dreadful realities of life in modern Israel.

“Dear Reader,” says the preface. “This lexicon is a fictitious satire. However, if you happen to be troubled by its content, perhaps this book is not for you or perhaps you think it is about you.”

This review would not be complete without a sample of some of the aphorisms in the book:

A to Zion is a modern expression of the unique Jewish humour that has put the pogroms, the concentration camps and the anti Semitism — in fact an age-old history of persecution — into a bearable perspective.

Here are a few quotes from the book:

EINSTEIN, ALBERT – a relatively clever Jewish boy

SABBATH – no traffic jam in Golders Green

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin £8.99)

British comic genius PG Wodehouse has made so strong an impression on the English speaking literary psyche, part-icularly the adventures of London flaneur Bertie Wooster and his inimitable valet Jeeves, that many attempts have been made to resuscitate the comedic maestro’s immortal creations.

The worst failure was the 2013 TV series, ‘Blandings Castle’, portray-ing the doings of Lord Emsworth and his family, which failed miser-ably to follow the brilliance of the earlier ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ TV series. Wodehouse was woefully misunderstood and misrepresent-ed, his characters turned into caricatures, his comedy turned into crude slapstick.

As a re-creation of the Wooster and Jeeves partnership, novelist Sebastian Faulks successfully gave us ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, A Homage to PG Wodehouse’ in 2013, a book that saw the end of Bertie Wooster’s bachelorhood.

And now, from the USA, where it already has a cult following, is American writer and sitcom creator Jonathan Ames’ Wake Up, Sir!, a completely fresh transatlantic take on Wodehouse’s much-loved duo. Ames’ American version of Bertie Wooster takes the form of Alan Blair, a Jewish writer and committed alcoholic. Alan is an anglophile who hires a man-servant called Jeeves to protect him from his ferocious Uncle IrwinAlan shares Bertie’s diffidence and dependence on Jeeves, and the Wodehouse theme is maintained by a host of clever literary illusions peppering the book throughout. Alan’s dipsomania leads to his self-imposed eviction from the Manhattan family home, and Jeeves and Alan flee to Rose Haven, a writer’s colony whose inhabitants match even Alan’s craziness and self-loathing.

Jeeves as ever is at hand to extricate the young master from his self-inflicted follies with consequences that range from the hilarious to the sombre.

Even though Alan’s Manhattan is a far cry from Bertie’s West End, I found that Wake Up Sir! was a very plausible follower of the Wodehousian literary tradition — the feelings the hapless Alan arouse in the reader are very close to memories of Bertie Wooster’s idiocy, and the American Jeeves is our Jeeves reborn.

If you love Wodehouse’s “sunlit perfection” you will find a resonance in Ames’ novel.

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (John Murray £16.99)

Edith Pearlman first visited this column in 2013 when I reviewed her collection of short stories Binocular Vision (Pushkin Press), which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle award

Edith Pearlman should be better known in the UK. She is American, a multi-award winning and prolific writer of short fiction, much admired in the USA. We are grateful to publishers John Murray for bringing us her newest collection entitled Honeydew.

The twenty stories in Honeydew each have the import of a full life story, each a full novel in miniature.

In ‘Stone’, affluent widow Ingrid moves from a lifetime as a chic urbanite to a prospective future as a rural entrepreneur.

Paige, the poker-playing pedicurist in ‘Tenderfoot’ encounters the poisonous legacy of guilt when cust-omer Bobby a hit-and-run driver confesses his shame and anguish at his cowardice. Paige realises that we are all guilty at some stage of not stopping and helping out at life’s crossroads.

Or meet the engineer Jack in ‘Dream Children’ who feels impelled to secretly paint pictures of deformed children as an amulet to ward of personal catastrophe.

Each of Pearlman’s stories penetrates the truth lying behind the normal dullness of the mundane facades presented by a variety of people and situations, leading to the fuller picture of the singularity of the human characte 

How fortunate is the book-lover. This month has seen the launch of new novels by two literary giants, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Czech literary luminary Milan Kundera — and a sumptuous coffee table book celebrating the work of ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal….

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa translated by Edith Grossman (Faber&Faber £20.00)

Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has made several appearances in this column, most recently for his The Dream of the Celt, a rather sombre biography of Sir Roger Casement. In his latest

novel The Discreet HeroLlosa takes us back to his native Peru, displaying his powerful narrative virtuosity, drawing the reader deep into the lives of his characters, some of whom we have met before.

Return of Don Rigoberto

We encounter senior insurance executive and art connoisseur Don Rigoberto again, now on the verge of retirement to enjoy his art collection and to travel to Europe’s beautiful paintings, buildings and

sculptures (Don Rigoberto was the central figure in two of Llosa’s earlier erotic novels, In Praise of the Step-

mother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto). Alas, the vicious sons of his boss put paid to Rigoberto’s plans as he strives instead to extricate the elderly Ismael and Armida, his young servant-girl bride, from their evil machinations.

Extortion challenged!

He now crosses paths with Felicito Yanaque, successful entrepreneur, adulterous husband and father of

two sons who finds himself the victim of an extortion racket. Felicito refuses to pay the protection money

demanded and instead goes to the police and puts a furious advert in the newspaper exposing the cowardly crime — an unprecedented reaction.

Colourful personalities

Perish the thought that The Dicreet Hero is some sort of portentous political polemic. When colourful personalities like the mulatto psychic and healer Adelaida, the police chief Captain Silva who deals with the threatening spider letters, Felicito’s beautiful mistress Mabel, Ismael’s dread-ful money-mad sons, and young Fonchito who is befriended by the Devil parade the stage, the result is a lively, engrossing portrayal of modern Peru where two honorable businessmen are will-ing to risk all to live a free and self-respecting life.

O tempora! O mores!

The move from the despairing political overt-ones of Llosa’s earlier work is similar to the change in the work of celebrated Russian writer Andrey Kurkov whose early novels were dark indictments of life in Soviet Russia but whose recent novels treat of post Glasnost affluence. The result is a body of work that mirrors brill-iantly the variation of the times the authors have been living in, from deprivation, fear and misery to the freedoms of a modern affluent state.

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

translated by Linda Asher (Faber&Faber £14.99)

Famous as the bilingual (French and Czech) author of The Incredible Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and ForgettingKundera has towered over the international literary scene for decades.

Parisian idyll

His latest work The Festival of Insignificance is a book of great charm, a showcase for his beautiful easy style. Four friends, Alain, D’Ardelo, Ramon and Caliban live a life of cocktail parties and piquant social encounters in Paris, ex-changing absurd anecdotes, lies and rumours about the people they know in Paris and others — for example we have an unforgettable story of Stalin claiming to have shot a row of twenty four partridges, which obligingly waited in the tree for him to reload his gun. His audience which

includes Khrushchev, Beria, Brezhnev and Kalin dare not laugh nor contradict him openly…yes, you are dying to know what happens next, a triumph achieved by all the otherwise inconsequential stories.

Unique worldview

Literary critics have always treated Kundera with respect, in full appreciation of the characteristic self deprecating narrative that is his trademark. This slim volume celebrating insignificance still manages to engage the reader fully and to express a unique worldview that is Kundera’s alone.

Edmund de Waal edited by Emma Crichton Miller (Phaidon £59.99)

Celebrated ceramicist Edmund de Waal first swam into the literary ken with his acclaimed novel/memoir/travelogue The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

Sumptuous volume

Phaidon Press, long established publisher of the finest illustrated books with titles on all aspects of the arts, architecture, design, cinema and photo-graphy, brings us a truly beautiful volume of Edmund de Waal’s pots, cargoes and installations in varied settings.

Studio talk

De Waal is well known in the art world for his treatises on the subject of ceramics and famous ceramic-sts —- In this book, Phaidon allows de Waal to talk directly about his life and the development of his artistic capability with wonderful photographs of the artist at work.

This richly detailed book has over 250 plates of de Waal’s work, working methods and his studio environment. Those who caught the TV documentary of de Waal’s Gagosian Gallery exhibition in New York with its fabulous close-ups of the pots will appreciate the pleasure of having a visual record in a book that is on hand at any time.

Erudite Essays

As if this were not enough, erudite essays by literary luminaries like A.S.Byatt and Peter Carey, plus one of Colm Toibin finest short stories The Arrangement which treats of a mysterious seafarer and his priceless porcelain treasure, make this book absolutely irresistible.

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