Debbie James, bookseller extraordinaire at the Kibworth Bookshop in south Leicestershire, never failed to produce something new and interesting with her small but perfectly formed inventory. About this time last year - when I was commuting weekly from "the heart of rural England" (as Leicestershire likes to call itself) to Madrid, Debbie suggested I try Stone in a Landslide.
Maria Barbal's novella, translated from the Catalan, tells the tale of a Pyrenean peasant girl whose life is turned upside down by the catastrophe of the Civil War and its shattering upheaval of Spain's rural communities. It offers a powerful, unsettling portrait of a Spain that is not so far back in the rear view mirror, and as such offered fascinating insight into some of the forces that have shaped my adopted homeland. It's also an emotional story of the human spirit and its journey of hope, love, endurance, suffering and ultimately survival.
That's a lot to pack into 126 pages, as you can probably imagine, but Stone in a Landslide is all the more rich for its brevity. And as such it is the perfect showcase for its publisher, the wonderful Peirene Press, which specialises in contemporary European novellas, "of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD" (or the time it takes to fly from Heathrow to Madrid).
Each of Peirene's titles is an award winnner in its own language that - in the case of those I've read - has been beautifully translated into English.
The novellas have been carefully chosen, and so far I haven't been let down in the titles I've read. Publisher Meike Ziervogel, author of the critically acclaimed Magda, has cleverly themed her books into five series - Female Voice, Male Dilemma, Small Epic, Turning Point and Coming of Age - building something of an imperative into the reader's mind.
Something else that stands out about these books is their exquisite presentation; they are beautifully designed and will enhance the aesthetic of any shelf. They have also been well-marketed with subscriptions available as presents.
I bought one such subscription as a present for another ex-pat, my friend Kate Winn who is living in cultural exile in Germany. She describes them as "little gems".
"It’s so easy to get caught in a groove. You know what you like and stick with it: there’s simply too much choice to sift the options," Kate says. "That’s where an organisation like Peirene comes in. By extending its net far beyond the obvious, Peirene opens doors to entirely new worlds, and a focus on the novella as a form means that even the busiest reader can afford to take a chance and try them out. The books are chosen with care, introduced with love and published with style."
Nicely said - what has taken me 400, Kate manages in 40 words. (Perhaps she should consider a career in communications). I, too, have enjoyed the diversity these books have brought me as they are clearly a fair way out of this blog's regular orbit.
Kate's favourite is Mr Darwin's Gardener, Kristina Carlson's portait of a grief-stricken widower, described by Meike Ziervogel as Peirene's "most poetic book yet". Mine remains Stone in a Landslide, a book I read well over a year ago but one that I still think about regularly. We both are also very fond of Portait of the Mother as a Young Woman, the breath-taking 0ne-sentence masterpiece portraying the thoughts of a young and pregnant German woman in Rome in 1943.
If you haven't found Peirene yet, I urge anyone of open literary mind to consider one of its titles. The publisher takes its name from a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring. The poets of Corinth discovered the Peirene source and, for centuries, they drank this water to receive inspiration."