Tag Archives: Asymptote Book Club

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky

The grandmother of the title is racist, outspoken, a liar, a hypochondriac, a schemer and secretive.

At the refugee home, we were, as Grandmother noted unhappily, surrounded by Jews. She’d never made a secret of her antisemitism: “Not because of Jesus or anything. I have genuine, personal reasons.” She’s nearly burst whenever she had to keep herself from using certain curses during toasts with the neighbors. Then she’d revel in the fact that she’d managed to gain access for us to the privileges of the golden West under false premises. ‘Just so you don’t think we’re really Jews,” she hammered home to me while feeling my forehead for a fever. “Opa had an uncle who had a brother-in-law. He had a Jewish wife. That’s how it works. Don’t ask.” (10)

The character of the grandmother is grotesque at the outset of this novella. Her grandson, Max, who tells the story, is only six, and is watched over obsessively by his Russian grandmother. With her husband they have come to live in Berlin in a converted hotel.

The home was a former hotel with a cracking plaster façade and a sign still adorning the entrance that said “Sunshine Inn”. […] Grandmother looked unfavorably on most of the new acquaintances: she was suspicious of people who left their homelands, except when it came to us. (10-11) 

With such characters, in such a situation, the opportunities for humour and wit are plentiful and fully embraced in this German novella.

My Grandmother’s Braid

When I began to read this novella, I was hoping that Max and his grandfather would eventually escape the old woman’s attentions. She supervises Max’s every move, obsessively keeping germs at bay, and providing only liquid food for the boy claiming that he has a very weak constitution. She even attends school with him when he starts. She continues to supervise him until she finds another child to do the surveillance for her.

The grandfather meets and falls in love with another refugee, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant you might expect that all hell would be unleashed. But the grandmother is nothing if not pragmatic, and the two household gradually integrate and the baby is cared for by three adults in different combinations. The pressure is off Max, and he learns to stand up for himself.

He also learns more about his grandmother’s past – she is a former prima ballerina. And about his own mother and what happened to her. The grandmother shows herself to be very enterprising, and sets up a dancing school for the neighbourhood. As Max and his baby uncle grow up their lives become more settled and Max is able to take risks, to understand his grandmother’s obsessions and eventually to follow his own path.

In the course of the story we have been presented with many scenes of humour based on mutual incomprehension, visual effects (such as the silent workforce attending the grandfather’s funeral), quick repartee: ”Where is his mother? Is it true she sold him?” “No,” said grandmother calmly. “Look at him. Would anybody ask for money for that?”

This book was great fun, and also provided some poignant moments which made me reflect on the situation of some of the most despised people in Europe. This group of refugees need the grandmother’s endurance if not her grandiloquence. Overwhelmingly, it is a book about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways . 

The book was sent to me because I have a subscription with the Asymptote Club

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky

Alina Bronsky is the pseudonym of a Russian-German writer. Born in 1978 she now lives in Berlin and has written a number of novels, including The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. She is highly regarded for her vibrant prose and has won many literary awards in Germany. 

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky, originally published in 2019 as Der Zopf meiner Grossmutter. The English translation from the German by Tim Mohr was published by Europa Editions in 2021. 159pp

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Love by Hanne Østavik

The single word of the title, Love, is absent throughout this short novel. Is there love? Do the characters love each other? Can Vibeke love Jon as a mother should? Is it absence of love, or the search for it that causes the final tragedy? Set in the snowy north of Norway, without daylight, these are some clues about the emotional temperature of this novel.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. Love by Hanne Østavik is a short book, sent by the Asymptote club. Originally published in 1997 in Norwegian, it was translated by Martin Aitken for publication by archipelago books this year.

A summary of Love

Vibeke, a single mother, and her son Jon have recently moved to the village in the north of Norway. The events of the novel take place over a single night. It will be Jon’s 9thbirthday the next day.

The story is told alternating, almost every paragraph between Vibeke and Jon, their thoughts and actions. Jon thinks about his mother and what she might be doing all the time. Vibeke, as far as we are told, never thinks about Jon once when she goes out.

After a quick meal of boiled sausages and bread wraps both mother and son go out, without the other knowing. She goes to the library, then to the fair and then to find some nightlife with a fairground worker. We see her creating a belief in the attraction the man Tom feels for her. She interprets every action as a step towards a closer relationship. He returns her home without anything happening. She assumes Jon is in bed. She has given no thought to him or his birthday or to the promises she made him last year.

Jon goes out to sell raffle tickets for a club he has recently joined, visits the house of a girl who attends his school and then goes home to find he has locked himself out and his mother is not in. He convinces himself that she has gone to get ingredients for his birthday cake. As he waits he is picked up by another fairground worker. At this moment one feels he is in real trouble, but it turns out that the driver of the car wants company. He too tries to guess what is in his companions’ minds, and to keep at bay his childish fears.

With two characters who make assumptions all the time, the final tragedy is inevitable but not foreseen.

Reading Love

As one reads this short but compelling novel, the absence of love, or of love expressed dominates every page. The relationship felt dysfunctional from the beginning. There were some moments when Jon’s naivety looks as if it will lead him into trouble: an old man leads him to his basement, but gives him a pair of old skates; he accepts the invitation to get in the stranger’s car, for example.

Vibeke appears distracted, wanting something that she can only imagine or fabricate from her situation. As a single mother myself I wondered how she could live with so little thought for Jon. Jon persuades himself that Vibeke is thinking of him and acting on his behalf, preparing for his birthday. Tragedy comes from the miscommunication.

The reader must work hard to discern the narrative, follow the two characters at the same time, distil their actions from the description, and feel the tension as it winds tighter and tighter. Here’s a random choice (I could not decide any criteria for a choice, except to show both Jon and Vibeke). Jon is in the house of a girl from his school, playing the board game Othello. Vibeke has just found that the library is closed but sees the lights of the fair.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” says Jon.

“Let me guess, you’ll be eighteen,” the girl says with a laugh.

Jon has the upper hand, his black counters are all over the board. The girl has given up and isn’t taking it seriously anymore.

Vibeke goes in through the fairground entrance. A reveller bumps into her, braying something unintelligible and carrying on oblivious. She stops and looks around. (35)

Love is a challenging but compelling read.

Love by Hanne Østavik published in English in 2018 by archipelago books. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Originally published as Kjaerlighetin 1997. 125pp

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Nothing Holds Back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller.

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The book group, the blogger and the book

There’s a cliché about book groups: the members are all women of a certain age, keen yoghurt knitters and instead of discussing a book they drink wine and gossip. They may exist, but I have never been in a book group remotely like that cliché. But I am having difficulty, partly because I belong to too many book groups.

kiki_b on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Why belong to a book group?

What’s not to like? We talk about books. This is not something we can do just anywhere. With the odd exception (that is people who have read The Master and Margarita) on buses and trains people don’t expect to talk about books. The opportunity to indulge in these discussions is my main reason to be in a group.

I also enjoy reading other people’s choices, books I might have missed, or may have rejected for any number of reasons: I read it before; someone I know didn’t respond well to it; I’ve heard not good things about it; I am a book snob.

I like to be social, and meet new people, especially when I moved to Devon several years ago.

Book Group wars

There are some things to guard against in book groups, I have heard. There are people who speak too much. There are people who pronounce on a book’s qualities or weaknesses and will not listen to the views of others. And there are people who are downright nasty to other members, have secret meetings, and plot to make someone leave a group. I have never been in a group like that. But I know people who have been.

My book groups

I attend two face-to-face book groups. We meet in people’s houses and drink wine in the one that meets in the evening. Both groups are serious about discussing the books.

On my blog I join in readalongs, currently Muriel Spark’s centenary #ReadingMuriel2018 hosted by Heavenali. Recently there was the 1977 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. In the past I joined a year of Virginia Woolf. I like the on-line community, the different views of the bloggers, the slow conversation on-line and the sense of involvement in a project with others.

I have my own projects, the older women in fiction series, the women in translation series and the decades project. I also occasionally support the celebrations of birthdays of neglected women novelists.

I receive monthly novels from the Asymptote club that aims to promote fiction from around the world.You could try it.

Books about Book Groups

The Prison Book Group by Ann Walmsley

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

These first three are all non-fiction. The next three are novels.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler: a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Readers of Broken Wheel recommend by Katarina Bivald. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

No! I don’t want to join a bookclub by Virginia Ironside, about much, much more than bookclubs.

And for a list of nine (including some of the ones I have mentioned) you could check out this article from bustle.

Book groups – so what’s the problem?

Recently I have been thinking that all this book clubbery is too much. Already I schedule my reading to meet the demands of my groups and blog plans. But this is making me feel under obligation about my reading. I want my choices back again.

The tension mounted and it became still more difficult when my blog was playing up recently. I have fixed the blog but the requirement to read certain things by certain dates remains with me.

Fortunately the resolution is in my own hands. It’s simple – I may not keep to my schedules. I don’t believe many people will notice or that anyone will suffer from this decision. But you have been warned!

Do you ever suffer from book-reading-obligation blues?

Tell us about it.

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