Twelve Minutes of Love – A Tango Story by Kapka Kassabova

March is New Zealand book month. I was looking for something authentically kiwi to read and failed miserably! I’m not sure that Kapka Kassabova would even describe herself as a New Zealand author or an author from anywhere specific at all. That sense of not belonging anywhere, and of searching for that metaphoric place that feels like home is really what Twelve Minutes of Love is about – that, and of course, Tango.

Kassabova is a Bulgarian who immigrated to New Zealand as a teenager with her family in the 1990’s. Despite escaping turbulent times in Eastern Europe and describing New Zealand as the most beautiful country in the world, it wasn’t home. Neither sadly was Sofia when she returned there years later. I found this aspect of her story especially powerful and I really understand how someone in this situation could find themselves constantly looking for something that feels right.

Twelve Minutes of Love is a non-fiction, memoir/travel journal of a decade of Kassabova’s life as she travelled the world writing and searching for the next tango fix. Her travels took her from New Zealand to Buenos Aires several times, to Berlin, Paris, New York and eventually Scotland. Personal, honest, funny and fascinating – a story that will appeal to all the restless souls amongst us.

The twelve minutes referred to is the average amount of time spent dancing a set of tango dances (a tanda) with the same person. Kassabova tells us early on that twelve minutes of sheer bliss on the dance floor does not usually translate to much bliss off the dance floor – leading to inevitable heartache for those fooled into thinking it could be otherwise.

The first thing to say is that Kassabova is a very good writer and the second is that it is not essential (I don’t think) to know much about Tango to enjoy her story. For anyone who does love Tango, or is even a touch interested, I would think this book is a must read. There is a plenty of tango talk, history, music and passion. A great reference and I’m tempted to re read it slowly, a lot of knowledge to soak up.

For me as a New Zealander living away from home I found it especially poignant that the things about New Zealand that seem so boring and unappealing when living there and to Kassabova as an immigrant, are exactly the things that I would choose to return for. It’s all about the concept of home. The ending of the book and that chapter of Kapka Kassabova’s life leave the reader with the hope that she is on her way to finding a place to call home as well. I sincerely hope she finds it.

A great read, not easy to put down!

2011, 324 pages

Triple Choice Tuesday at Reading Matters

Today I am featured on Triple Choice Tuesday over at Reading Matters.
I have always really enjoyed this feature of Kim’s blog and was delighted when she asked me to participate. Pop on over to see my answers to these questions:

A favourite book

A book that changed your world

A book that deserves a wider audience

Thanks again Kim!

The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham

I saw the film of The Painted Veil a few years ago and was very impressed. Stunning scenery and photography with gorgeous costumes but most of all it was the simplicity of the dialogue, pure quality with not a wasted word. I enjoyed the crispness of the characters and thought Edward Norton was especially wonderful.

So I had high expectations of this little book and have to admit that my experience of reading it was heavily influenced by memories of the film. From memory I think the film had a more romantic angle than the book – I enjoyed that at the time but especially liked that the book wasn’t neat and tidy – there is resolution of sorts between the characters but the outcome of the story wasn’t especially predictable.

Kitty marries Walter Fane and they set off immediately from 1920’s England for Hong Kong where Walter is posted as a bacteriologist. Walter is a person of integrity and is in love with Kitty, a love she does not return. She finds him dull and soon after arriving embarks on an affair with one of Walter’s colleagues Charles. The book starts with Kitty in bed with her lover staring in horror as someone tries the door handle and then the window of their room. It is immediately obvious that Kitty is a shallow and spoiled woman and she has attracted in Charles a man of similar character.

Fast forward a few tense chapters and Kitty and her husband make the arduous journey across China to assist in an area stricken with Cholera. Walter has volunteered to go and help – Kitty views this as a certain death sentence.

What follows amounts to the beginning of a spiritual awakening for Kitty.

The writing is wonderful, insightful and with a good level of suspense – it’s a short book and now I want to read something else by Somerset Maugham straight away. I’m tempted by Up at the Villa – another slim book, but also the much longer Of Human Bondage. I’m a complete novice when it comes to this writer, coming to him with no preconceived ideas at all which is great I think.

Stories of travel and transformation are one of my favourites and The Painted Veil reminds me in that vein of The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – a story that didn’t completely win me over at the time but one that I’ve thought about quite a bit since. I’m also keen to read another of Bowles’ books soon too – perhaps Up Above the World.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning here and I’m going to go for a walk and come back to some comfort reading later on. I’ve just started The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas – another travel and discovery type story – set in India. It looks good so far.

Wishing everyone a happy day of reading.

1925, 240 pages

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer


I have just loved reading The Glass Room this week. It’s a book to be read slowly if possible although it’s tempting to rush ahead, the chapters are short, the writing elegant and understated as well as sensual, gripping and tragic.

Simon Mawer’s eighth novel was short listed for the Booker prize in 2009 – the winner being Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. My thoughts after finishing The Glass Room are that Wolf Hall must be absolutely fantastic to have taken the prize. Not that I have any book judging credentials and of course it’s all subjective but I’m going to make the effort to read Wolf Hall to satisfy my curiosity. I have it on kindle but have been a bit intimidated by the size of it.

I first heard of The Glass Room with this excellent review by Tom at A Common Reader. I thought then that it sounded wonderful and it really is. So much so that I knew after the first couple of pages I would love it and so much so that I gave up trying to remember things to write about it later and just fell into reading it.

Set mostly in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, the Glass Room is the name of a house and the term is used loosely and is open to interpretation depending on the language used (Czech or German). There is nothing loose about the actual house and it is in fact the anchor for all that happens to its various inhabitants throughout the following years. It is the one constant in a time of upheaval and devastation in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the people that pass through it.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are honeymooning in Venice in 1929 when a chance meeting with a German architect results in a commission. He will build them their dream home, a forward thinking functionalist style building, without conventional walls, filled with glass and a stunning onyx wall. A house for the future; minimalist, free of ornament and association with the past. This house whilst ridiculed at first is soon claimed a masterpiece, the Glass Room becomes host to gatherings and recitals – the Launder’s are a wealthy family and for a time life seems good although times are changing.

Viktor is Jewish and eventually the Landauer’s are forced to flee their home, friends and family to seek exile abroad. They must leave their precious home to its fate and await their own. The fate of the characters, of their home, is such that by the end of the book it really does seem like many years have passed and much has changed.

Just a beautiful book on so many levels. There is a lot I have left out including some factual details about Mawer’s inspiration for The Glass Room and other crucial characters and details. Plenty to discover. As the saying goes ‘read it and weep’ – it had that effect on me.

2009, 404 pages

The Sentamentalists – Johanna Skibsrud

I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be good to try some Canadian authors. I’m not 100% sure but I think I may have read only one book so far and that was Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, winner of the Giller Prize in 2007, which although a little slow in places, was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

With her debut novel The Sentamentalists, Johanna Skibsrud also won the Giller prize – in 2010. I had heard of it and was attracted by the tranquility of the cover, the slimness of the book and my expectations of a gentle and emotional read.

The book is written in a heart felt way about a daughter’s attempt to care for and understand her father as his health declines in his later years, an attempt to make sense of his time in Vietnam and how that experience affected his life and his ability to fully engage as a husband and father. It is obvious early on that her father has experienced post traumatic stress, has been an alcoholic and had deserted his family at one time. Towards the end of his life, his daughters move him to the home of an old friend, a place that had been like a second home to the family years earlier. As the narrator looks back on her childhood, she tries to fill in the gaps of her life and that of her father, mother and sister and that of Henry, whose house they share.

I’ve read a few books about older men trying to find peace in remote settings and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I can relate to the concept of nature and time as healers. Two books that spring to mind are Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (also about the effects of the Vietnam War on a man and his family) and J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace,. I found both of these to be excellent.

I really wanted to like The Sentamentalists. Johanna Skibsrud has written a sensitive story on a topic she has personal experience of and I could feel where she was coming from but unfortunately the pace was way too slow and the narrative disjointed. It just didn’t work for me. I persevered hoping it would click into place but on the whole it didn’t. I’m pleased I read it all though – it would have seemed almost disrespectful not to and there are two passages which made it worthwhile to keep going. They both related to the father Napoleon’s time in Vietnam, his sense of disorientation in particular and the horrors that he, as little more than a boy, experienced, were written very well.

Luckily not everyone agrees with my view of this book. One of the Guardian’s reviewers was ‘moved to tears’ and the Giller panel obviously found plenty about it to like.

Winner of the Giller Prize 2010

2009, 210 pages

Russian Winter – Daphne Kalotay

1930’s Moscow – a warm summer’s day in June will prove to be a significant one for nine year old Nina Revskaya. Along with her childhood friend Vera, this is the day she first auditions for the Bolshoi Ballet School. It is the era of Stalin and sadly by days end Vera’s parents will have mysteriously disappeared. It will be many years before Nina sees Vera again.

By stark contrast it is also the day Nina glimpses what life outside the Soviet Union could be like. A glamorous American woman in beautiful clothes exits an expensive hotel as the girls and Nina’s mother walk by. Nina is mesmerised by the delicate diamond ear rings the woman wears – she has never seen such beautiful jewels, never known such a life existed.

Boston – seventy years later, Nina, the world famous prima ballerina, has decided to auction off some of her formidable jewellery collection. Of particular interest is an amber bracelet and ear rings – along with the matching necklace annonymously donated to the auction house. Nina is a woman with secrets, secrets she intends to keep to herself. As the story flashes back to Nina’s life in Soviet Russia, it becomes obvious why. From the sacrifices required to remain a top ballerina, the oppression and suspicion of life under Stalin and the love Nina has for her artist friends and her beloved husband the poet Viktor Elsin – runs a common thread of betrayal and tragedy.

Charged with tracing the provenance of the jewellery is Drew Brooks, the young auctioneer organising the sale, who herself has Russian ancestory. Assisting her is Grigori Solodin, a Professor of Russian studies and a man with questions about his own past.

I liked this book. I liked the main story, the part that took place in Russia – I found the current day story set in Boston less engrossing but it did grow on me. I’m not usually the biggest fan of dual time periods in a book for that reason, so I’m not suprised to have found one story stronger.

Daphne Kalotay spent six years researching and writing Russian Winter. She makes clever use of her research to provide an intriguing historical setting, enough detail to enhance but not engulf the story. I came away entertained rather than overwhelmed. For readers looking to delve further into the world of ballet, jewellery and life behind the Iron Curtain, there is an excellent list in the authors notes and sources at the end of the book. I would like to read all of them!

2010, 459 pages

Thank you to Arrow Books and to tour host Trish for sending me a copy of Russian Winter which I read as part of this TLC Book blog tour.

To check out other stops on the tour, pop over to the readers below:

Monday, February 6th: She Reads Novels
Wednesday, February 8th: Reading With Tea
Thursday, February 9th: Fleur Fisher in her World
Tuesday, February 14th: DizzyC’s Little Book Blog
Wednesday, February 15th: Pining for the West
Thursday, February 16th: Chuck’s Miscellany
Monday, February 20th: one more page
Tuesday, February 21th: I hug my books
Wednesday, February 22th: The Sweet Bookshelf

A little blogging holiday…

Hello – I’m posting from New Zealand, I’m here for a little wedding gathering – my own!

That combined with the demise of my faithful and elderly laptop has meant little blogging opportunities over the past few weeks so I’ve decided to take a little break until later in February.

While I’m in NZ, I’m hoping to pick up two books that should be easier to find here than in the UK just now – Autumn Laing by Alex Miller and So Brilliantly Clever by Peter Graham. So Brilliantly Clever is a non fiction book about the murder in 1954 of a mother by two school girls, one of them being her daughter. The film Heavenly Creatures with a young Kate Winslet was based on this murder and the case was a huge sensation at the time. This latest book was published in 2011 and I’m interested to read Peter Graham’s take on it.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a happy few weeks of reading..