The Door - Magda Szabó


"I know now, what I didn't then, that affection can't always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else."

Complex. Enigmatic. Intense. These are just some of the words I could use to describe this wonderful gem by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó (1917-2007). It is regrettable that Szabó's work is not more widely known in the English speaking world, although after reading The Door, it is clear that her lack of recognition owes more to the dearth of English translations than to any criticism of her writing. Indeed, Szabó was one of Hungary's premier authors and is widely celebrated in her native country, winning several prestigious literary prizes, including the French Prix Femina for Best Foreign Novel. Thanks to a wonderful, fluent translation in 2005 by Len Rix, this masterpiece was finally available for British publication.

Set against a backdrop of post-war Budapest, The Door ostensibly relates the simple tale of a writer and her relationship with her hired help. The un-named narrator is a young novelist (a thinly veiled self-portrait) who lives with her intellectual husband. Finding themselves thoroughly absorbed in their academic pursuits, the couple soon realise they are in need of domestic help. An elderly neighbour, Emerence, is recommended to them - a woman with an unblemished reputation for reliability - but when she turns up for her interview it is apparent that she is something of an oddity. It is also equally clear to her prospective employers that any work Emerence undertakes will be on her own terms. Apart from declaring she will only work when it suits her, she asks for references for the couple and states that assuming they meet her approval she will begin work. Only after discovering how slovenly her employers are will she decide herself how much she is to be paid. Thus begins Emerence's bizarre reign over the writer's household and a complex relationship which will span 20 years.

Emerence is a formidable character and the complexities of her personality are so finely drawn as to make her completely unforgettable. She is a big, powerful woman who radiates strength and her energy and dependability make her indispensable. Keenly intelligent, but virtually illiterate, she is fiercely loyal and gives of herself to everyone around her without reservation. Yet at times she is also a tyrant, prone to frightening rages and flagrantly disregards her employer's wishes. There are ferocious battles of will between the two and the narrator is often unsure where she stands in her relationship with Emerence, sometimes reduced to tears of anger and frustration, only to be charmed again a short time later by the stubborn old peasant.

Emerence's past is an enigma. Although she is revered by her neighbours, little is known about her and she guards her privacy obsessively, never allowing anyone beyond her front door. However, as the relationship with her employer matures and develops into an enduring bond, we gradually learn snippets of the housekeeper's secrets.

It is clear that Emerence has had a difficult life, working as a servant from the age of thirteen, suffering hunger and deprivation in a country taken over by Fascists, Nazis, and Communists. We understand the events which have shaped her idiosyncratic character and Emerence almost becomes a symbol of Hungary's troubled history as Szabó reveals much about the sufferings of 20th-century central Europe in her sensitive portrayal of this fearless woman.


Magda SzaboIt was clear to me while reading that the novel was at least partly biographical. However, I was surprised to later read an interview (here) in which Magda Szabó states that everything described in The Door really happened and that the model for Emerence was her own housekeeper, Juliska. Even Viola - possibly the most brilliantly depicted dog in fiction - was not just a literary creation. As a simple story of two women and their strange mutual dependency, this novel works, but it is so much more than that and it adds even more layers to an already rich canvas to think that the characters and situations in this novel really existed. This is not a novel to be consumed quickly. The prose is dense with little dialogue, and benefits greatly from a slow, careful reading.

As a side note, I was pleased to discover that The Door is currently being made into a film with Helen Mirren cast in the role of Emerence. She is a fantastic actress, so I am sure she can do this character justice!

I would love to read more of Szabó's work, but so far, only The Door has been translated into English. It looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer.

The Green Smoothies Diet - Robyn Openshaw


It seems that following the success of Victoria Boutenko's two books on the benefits of drinking Green Smoothies (blended fruit and vegetable drinks) other writers want a piece of the action too. Robyn Openshaw's book is quite similar in structure to Boutenko's offerings. The author begins by explaining a little about her history and how she found her way to regularly consuming Green Smoothies. Much like Boutenko, she lists a myriad of ailments which she claims were cured or ameliorated by her smoothies.

Openshaw is a likeable writer and her personality comes through in her book. She goes into depths discussing the importance of greens in the diet and the relative benefits of various greens. She gives tips and advice on how best to buy and store produce, how to get children started on smoothies, and even how to grow your own vegetables. There are also many testimonials from people who have reported improvements in health.

The major difference between the two authors is whereas Boutenko advocates nothing except fruit, vegetables and water in the smoothies, Openshaw promotes the inclusion of a variety of other food items such as yoghurt, nut butters, oils, sweeteners and cocoa.

In my opinion Openshaw's book is more enjoyable to read, but there is a relatively small selection of recipes. If you are interested in this topic I would recommend buying books by both authors to give a more rounded overview of the information. I'm now excited to get started on my own Green Smoothie experiment and to see what health benefits I might notice!

Here is a quick video of the author showing how to make a Green Smoothie:



 Are you tempted to try Green Smoothies?


Green Smoothie Revolution - Victoria Boutenko


Following my reading of Victoria Boutenko's earlier book, Green For Life I was keen to read her 2009 follow-up, Green Smoothie Revolution. Here, she again carries on her mission to extol the virtues of getting more greens into our diet via the blended fruit and vegetable drinks which have come to be known as 'Green Smoothies'.

In this second volume the author briefly explains her background in the raw food community for the benefit of new readers and the family health problems which led her to exploring more unorthodox methods of healing. She also provides more tips and tricks on making the best, most nutritious Green Smoothies possible and addresses many of the questions readers of her previous book have asked. She gives advice for those who are interested in giving Green Smoothies to children and even pets. Some interesting case studies are also included, particularly that of a 400lb man who lost more than half his body weight on a Green Smoothie regime.

I would say this book suffers a little from the same 'dubious science presented as fact' problem as her previous one. And Boutenko does come across as rather eccentric and evangelical in places. However, if you can gloss over this I think there is much to be gained from following some of her advice.

The bulk of the book is made up of smoothie recipes, about 200 in all, so there is plenty of choice for different palates. Many of them sound quite appealing so I'm looking forward to giving them a try!


Green For Life - Victoria Boutenko


The last few years have seen a huge surge in the numbers of people adopting a vegan or raw food lifestyle, and while I do not follow such a diet myself, I am always interested in new theories on improving our diet and health. The internet abounds with websites, blogs and videos from people documenting their quest for superior nutrition, and if you are at all interested in healthy living or increasing your intake of fruit and veggies, chances are you will have come across the phenomenon of the 'Green Smoothie'.

For those who do not know, a Green Smoothie is essentially a drink made from a mixture of fresh greens and fruit blended together into a smoothie. As many people suffer from a lack of leafy green vegetables in their diet, the idea is that it is much easier to consume large amounts of liquefied greens blended in this manner as opposed to chomping your way through pounds of raw salad. Advocates of the Green Smoothie even claim all manner of dramatic improvements in their health and well-being simply from drinking these concoctions daily.

I admit to being intrigued by the Green Smoothie concept since I stumbled across it in a Youtube video - it seems like such an easy way to radically improve your diet. I have known about juicing and its associated health benefits for years and have dabbled in it myself, but could never really see the sense in throwing away all the fibre from the fruit and veg and only drinking the juice. The Green Smoothie seemed to me like a more logical extension of the juicing method and I was keen to find out more.

After a bit of research I discovered that the original proponents of this idea are Victoria Boutenko and her family who claim to have cured themselves from a host of illnesses after going on a raw food diet out of desperation. The were plagued for years by hyperthyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, fatigue, asthma, diabetes and depression, and The Green Smoothie concept was eventually born out of their experiments to consume more fresh greens.

Green For Life is Mrs. Boutenko's book documenting the development of the green smoothie and the health benefits she and her family have experienced. I found it to be an engaging, quick read, though it must be said that Boutenko is not the best writer. The text can be a little plodding, but the content is inspiring, especially with the abundant case studies and testimonies included from testers.The recipes included range from mostly fruit based smoothies to mixes with a high percentage of green matter for more adventurous smoothie makers.

The main reservation I have with this book is the sometimes questionable deductions Boutenko makes regarding the science behind the success of her green smoothies. For instance, she studied the diet of wild chimpanzees, and because they share approximately 99.4% of their genes with humans she concludes that we should imitate their eating habits. Who knows - maybe she is right. But I would have liked to have seen this sort of pseudo-science backed up by some more rigorous data.

Readers could find many quibbles of this sort in this book, but regardless of that, it would appear that many people are indeed finding the benefits from drinking Green Smoothies and I don't see any harm in trying it. As someone who suffers from Lupus (creating chronic fatigue and arthritis), I am eager to see if I notice any health improvements. I've already purchased my high-speed blender!

For anyone interested, here is a video from one of the Boutenko family answering a few questions about Green Smoothies and demonstrating how to make one:



Has anyone experimented with Green Smoothies? What were your experiences? Do let me know!


People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me do my work.”

So says Hanna Heath, the protagonist of Geraldine Brooks' novel, People of the Book. It is 1996, and Hanna, an expert conservator of rare manuscripts, has been called to post-war Bosnia to analyse and conserve the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, an ancient Jewish prayer book. However, this is no ordinary medieaval Hebrew text. The presence of decorative artwork marks it out as an anomaly: 

"The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieaval Spain, was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing” had suppressed figurative art by medieaval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history text to be rewritten."

This priceless and mysterious codex, recently rescued from Serb shelling, represents an unmissable opportunity for Hanna and she sets about restoring the book and learning all she can about its history in the process. During her inspection she discovers a variety of artifacts and debris within its fragile pages -  a white hair, a wine stain, salt crystals and an insect's wing - all of which offer clues to the book's troubled history. Through alternating chapters these objects serve as a vehicle for Brooks to offer us glimpses into the Haggadah's story at key points throughout the book's life. The author presents these self-contained segments in reverse chronological order, with the origins of the manuscript revealed in the final vignette. As Hanna learns the secrets of the manuscript, she is drawn into her own personal family drama too.

I was surprised to learn there is indeed a real Sarajevo Haggadah which Brooks used to scaffold her novel and present us with a speculative account of its history. Today, it is on display in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Little is known of its provenance, but the author has taken what is known and filled in the gaps. Details of its beautiful illustrations can be seen here. The irony that the real Jewish Haggadah was saved from destruction at least three times - twice by Muslim librarians during Word War II and the wars in Yugoslavia and once by a Roman Catholic priest - has clearly provided Brooks with the framework for her fictional history. The result is a narrative that moves to Sarajevo in the 1940s, 19th century Vienna, 15th century Venice, Catalonia during the Inquisition and finally to Seville in 1480. In Brooks' hands, the history of the Haggadah is a tumultuous and bloody one, filled with echoes of religious persecution and brutality.

” … the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. … You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists … It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that.”

The People of the Book makes us question our role in these cyclical world events and one could be left with a rather bleak view of human beings and our capacity to tolerate others. However, Brooks story shows how through the ages people have taken care of the Haggadah, intuitively recognising its worth despite contrary religious beliefs. The novel's ultimate message is life-affirming: how people can do the 'right' thing, even in times of national strife, and humanity can transcend religious and political differences.

“It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” 

I enjoyed everything about this novel and it is certainly historical fiction which educates as it entertains. It illuminates the history of the European Jews in a unique way and although some reviewers find the historical segments a touch overblown and straying into melodrama, I can find no such criticism. The individual stories and characters were so fully drawn I found myself wishing each tale was a full novel in its own right. Brooks has a marvelous imagination and inter-weaves her stories, which by the end of the novel, have joined to become a complete, satisfying whole. It is a lush, multi-layered narrative and I can only imagine the amount of historical research that went into its creation.

I would recommend this to everyone who enjoys 'books about books' as well as fans of general historical fiction. There are lengthy passages which linger over fine details of the book conservator's art, the materials and crafts involved in the Haggadah's creation and the beauty of the prayer book's illustrations. The detailed descriptions will certainly resonate with everyone who loves books and feels a frisson of excitement before delving into an unknown tome to discover the secrets within.

One of the most enjoyable books I have read in quite some time.


The Woman In Black - Susan Hill

My first experience with Susan Hill came over ten years ago when I read her novel The Mist In The Mirror. I can now only vaguely remember details of the plot, but I do recall I thoroughly enjoyed it and the prevailing memory I have of it is the sense of unease which pervaded much of the story. When I discovered book blogs a few months ago and realised that Hill's The Woman in Black was the subject of much discussion (most of it positive!) I decided I would have to add this to my ever-growing collection of books to be read as quickly as possible. I was even more excited to find that this novel sounded like it would be another atmospheric ghostly tale in a similar vein to the novel which I had read more than a decade earlier.  

Shortly after that, I luckily discovered a copy of this Vintage edition of The Woman In Black at a local charity shop for the bargain price of £1. Of course I snapped it up. I took this down from the book shelf a few weeks ago and settled down with much anticipation for a classic scary read.  

The tale opens on Christmas Eve as our narrator, Arthur Kipps, listens to his step children tell ghostly stories around the fireside. When pressed to tell a spooky tale of his own, Arthur refuses. However, he does indeed have a story to tell, but has never dared speak of the events which occurred in his youth and which have haunted him throughout his life. Clearly troubled by the memories which his family's stories have stirred up, Arthur resolves to write down his reminiscences hoping it will be a cathartic experience:

"I should tell my tale, not aloud, by the fireside, not as a diversion for idle listeners - it was too solemn, and too real, for that. But I should set it down on paper, with every care in every detail. I would write my own ghost story. Then perhaps I should finally be free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy."

The narrative then relates the story of what happened to Arthur as a young man when he was working as a junior solicitor in London. Sent by his employer to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford, it is Arthur's duty to attend the funeral of a deceased client, a Mrs Alice Drablow, and to sort through her personal belongings and paperwork in an effort to find details of any living relatives. Arthur is initially keen to escape London for a few days, but upon his arrival in Crythin Gifford he finds the local people secretive and distinctly uneasy when questioned about the late Mrs. Drablow or her property, Eel Marsh House. Sensing something sinister, but nevertheless determined to perform his professional duties, he decides his work can best be carried out by staying for a few days in the old lady's isolated and marsh-bound house. However, things take a much darker turn when Arthur catches a glimpse of a skeletal young woman dressed all in black, which marks the beginning of a series of increasingly unnerving incidents which lead him along towards a dramatic climax.

The novel is certainly spooky and at only 160 pages long, it is perfect to immerse yourself in and read all in one go. Susan Hill seems to be a master of gothic scene-setting and she builds up a sense of menace and suspense seemingly with ease. In the tone of her work she clearly owes much to her ghost story writing predecessors and includes more than one knowing nod towards M.R James. Consequently it is a deliberately old-fashioned ghost story, and while there is nothing highly original here, I believe it is better for it. It can rightly be called a classic novel, in every sense, and one which I enjoyed greatly. I do urge everyone to read this book (if there is actually anyone left in the book blog community who has not yet done so...)

I believe there was TV adaptation of The Woman in Black some years ago, so I am now eager to get hold of this and see how well the novel's sense of atmosphere translates onto the screen! Has anyone seen the TV version? What did you think of it?


The House of Lost Souls - F.G. Cottam

I picked this book up some ago in my local Borders after being hooked by the beautiful cover. The title, together with the synopsis marked it out as the kind of unsettling and atmospheric chiller I usually love, so into the basket it went, and off to the checkout. I had never heard of author F. G Cottam before, so after a little googling and realising he was formerly in the lad-mag industry, I must admit my hopes for this novel dimmed considerably. Unfortunately, the opening chapter of the book did little to change my preconceptions. I found it muddled and the writing rather poor, and I did consider abandoning it there and then. However, I pressed on with it and was pleased to discover that as the plot progressed I really engaged with the story.

The novel revolves around the mysterious Fischer House, a brooding edifice on the Isle of Wight and the scene of dark deeds and paranormal events. The author skilfully weaves narratives from the present day, the 1980's and the 1920's as we meet various characters and learn how their lives are changed by their involvement with the Fischer House. Add in lots of period detail, elements of black magic, the supernatural and even the historical figures of Dennis Wheatley and Aleister Crowley who appear as characters, The House of Lost Souls is a creepy, understated thriller. Admittedly, the climax of the novel rather frustrated me as I felt it seemed a bit rushed and did not do the story justice in my opinion. Despite feeling a bit cheated at the end I enjoyed the tale overall and will probably give the author another go with one of his other books.

The House of Lost Souls is not a masterpiece and is unlikely to reinvent the genre, but if you like an unsettling read with a welcome absence of blood and gore you could do worse than to pick up a copy.