Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library

 

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#6Degrees July: From Tales of the City…

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. I had to take part in this month’s chain, because it starts with one of the formative books of my student days.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is about a group of people living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco, and features a mix of gay and straight characters. Revolutionary for the time and decidedly too hot to handle for Romanian censorship. Who would want to read about those decadent, vice-riddled Imperialist swine? Well, of course, all my classmates and me! So we read bootlegged versions of it in 1988 or so, long after the first book in the series was first published, and after AIDS had started decimating the gay community.

Another banned book in 1980s Romania was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, presumably because it had been embarrassing for the Soviet Union when Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize for a manuscript which had been smuggled out the country. Yet everyone I knew had read this book, translated into French or English or by some other means.

 

 

The second book in the link is The Accusation, a short story collection written by an anonymous North Korean writer known only as Bandi, because this manuscript was also smuggled out of that secretive country. I haven’t read it yet, and I don’t think it will contain many surprises for anyone who has lived in a dictatorship, and I have heard conflicting reports about its literary qualities. So perhaps more of a book to bear witness than one that creates great literature. Equally important, though, in this case.

My third book has also been pooh-poohed regarding its literary merits, namely The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity is so huge, that I’m sure the author couldn’t care less if people think she is not entirely original or extremely sophisticated. I’ve tried to read it, but possibly came across it too late to enjoy it, plus I read too many YA novels with a similar premise (well, not too many, it’s a genre that I don’t read that much, but as many as I can take).

One YA book which I recently read and was very much moved by was Sarah Crossan’s Moonrise. Written as a prose-poem, it’s the story of Joe, whose brother is on death row and the summer they get to spend ‘together’ once the date of execution has been announced. It is a searing condemnation of the death penalty, as well as a poignant story of sibling love. Not gimmicky at all, just believable emotions and characters to which you’ll get really attached.

I tried to get my children to read Moonrise as well, but they never pay the slightest attention to my recommendations. Even reverse psychology doesn’t work. Back in the days when they were younger and listened more to me, we read together for bedtime stories the whole Moomin series by Tove Jannson, and they still like revisiting some of those stories now, and saying things like ‘Bless my tail!’ or pointing out that certain mushrooms look like Hattifatteners and so on. The first story we ever read together was Finn Family Moomintroll with the Hobgoblin’s sinister hat.

The final link also features hats and is actually a Spanish children’s title which has not been translated into English yet, as far as I’m aware. 7 hombres con bombin (7 Men in Bowler Hats) by Alex Nogués (illustrated by Silvia Cabestany) was published in 2015. I haven’t read it but the blurb sounds intriguing and it was part of the UK panel’s choice of books for Spanish books to be recommended to publishers for translation in 2017:

‘In my city there were seven men who wore bowler hats. They always went about together. They were serious, stuffy, wore only black and twirled their moustaches. Until one day the wind swept one of the hats far, far away and showed them something new.’ Seven Men in Bowler Hats is a story to make us think, laugh and reflect. It takes us to that place where all of us should go from time to time: to the unknown…

San Francisco, Russia, North Korea, Dystopia, Texas, Finland and Spain – what a journey we’ve been on this month! Where will your links take you?

Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

Reading, Borrowing and Buying Update

You might think that after my splurge last week at Hay on Wye, I would be more careful about buying books. Well, you would think wrong, although that’s only because I received an Amazon voucher which made Homer’s Odyssey in the translation of Emily Wilson affordable (I’d been waiting for it to come out in paperback but was really, really keen to read it.) And, once that purchase was made, the dam was broken and a lot more books starting gushing out.

You may have seen Salt Publishing’s appeal on Twitter #JustOneBook, asking their fans to buy just one book from them as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, however you feel about their sudden closure of their poetry section (I have a few poet friends who were upset about the way they did it), I still want independent publishers to survive, as they are the ones who give us that much-needed variety and more experimental works. So I bought The Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce – anything but cheery. Then that pesky Anthony from Times Flow Stemmed mentioned Jane Bowles, so I had to track down a second-hand copy of Two Serious Ladies. I also happened to pop into the vintage Penguin section of Waterstones Gower Street and found one of my favourite Ngaio Marshes Artists in Crime, plus The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson. This latter author had been mentioned and reviewed recently by Ali, and you know what a weakling I am when it comes to your recommendations.

Other books arrived by prior appointment. Asymptote Book Club’s May offer was Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan from China – I’m a great fan of both Chinese literature and families (and bean paste, although I prefer it in my desserts usually), so this is a must-read-next. For review, I received a Greek book (perfect description of the surreal post-crisis Athens and homeless lifestyle) Baby Blue by Pol Koutsakis from Bitter Lemon Press. By way of contrast, I also received a noir novel set in rural Lancashire, Mere by Carol Fenlon, from Thunderpoint Publishing. In electronic format I received two jet-setter books (crime with an international setting) Return to Hiroshima by Belgian author Bob van Laerhoven and Dead in the Water by Simon Bower. Last but by no means least, I couldn’t resist getting Roxanne Bouchard’s We were the Salt of the Sea, because: Quebec, Orenda Books, special offer on Kindle!

In terms of borrowing, I’ve reserved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot at my local library, but will only get to read them after the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner has been announced.

And for my #20booksofsummer update, I’ve taken just 2 days to read the delightfully sunny Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by German author (of Italian origin) Mario Giordano. It’s like an expat version of Camilleri’s Montalbano, but with a feisty middle-aged woman as the main protagonist. 1 down, 19 to go! Next one I am already halfway through is The Single Mums’ Mansion, which I thought would also be lovely comedic escapism. But alas, it’s a little too much about divorce and bad behaviours, so may not be the best escapism in my current situation!

Do the Hustle: Rearranging My Books

With all of the book-buying binges I’ve been indulging in for the past year (and last week especially), I’ve had to rethink how I arrange my books on the shelves. In other words, I was running out of shelf space, despite the fact that there are bookshelves in my study, both of the boys’ rooms and the living room (although the latter could do with more bookshelves, but stupidly placed radiators prevent it).

So I had a genius moment of inspiration: why don’t I use some of the other furniture to keep books? I have two large bedside tables all to myself and a chest of drawers in my bedroom, plus another chest of drawers for the children’s clothes on the landing. Of course, there had to be a bit of logic to my madness, and this is what I came up with.

The bedside table by the side where I have my reading lamp is dedicated to ‘books to review and other current reads’, books borrowed from the libraries and my three favourite authors: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Tove Jansson. I don’t actually have all of their books here with me – the downside of moving frequently to new countries. But on the day when I will be reunited with all of them, I may have to rethink this strategy, as it’s filling up fast, as you can see! (I still need some space for a cup of coffee.)

On the other bedside table I have the Russians (more of them lurk in Romanian at my parents’ house, but these are the ones I’ve got translated into English), the non-Japanese Asians and Middle Eastern authors (of which I have shamefully few), another favourite writer Shirley Jackson and a few short story or essay collections that I am currently delving into. I also have a small selection of favourite crime fiction authors, so that I can take a peek at them when I get discouraged at the (non-)progress of my novel.

On my chest of drawers I have poetry, because every room needs some poetry in it. The selection was somewhat haphazard, mainly what was overflowing from my poetry bookshelf in the study, but you can’t go wrong with whatever book you open! And I did ensure that Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye, three poets who really inspire me, are there.

Out on the landing I have a selection of my Nordics (yes, they are a bit divvied up although lumped together as ‘Nordic’), including my favourite crime fiction series Martin Beck, plus some of my boys’ books that I also want to read and ARCs that I have already reviewed and that I might pass on to friends.

All of this has left no gaps in my proper shelves, but merely means that there is no more double or triple stacking. I can see all the titles at last! And I can also instantly spot the gaps in my world culture. (For example, the Latin Americans are starting to fill up, but Africa and Asia are still woefully underrepresented).

What clever tips and tricks have you got for arranging books or incorporating more shelf space? I’d love to hear from you, especially if you can find a solution for those pesky radiators.

The title is inspired from a song and dance from my parents’ youth: Do the Hustle by disco wonder Van McCoy. (I hasten to add that my parents’ dance was nothing like as complicated as that!) 

 

Reading Questions – from Twitter to Blog

I saw this fun Reading 20 Questions on Twitter. I doubt that 20 people would like it but I really want to do it, so I’m answering it for myself here on my blog. So there!

 

1. Everyone knows that I LOVE reading crime fiction best of all. I discovered it in my early 20s, when my brain was frazzled from doing 5 jobs at once, but I got to think of it as much more than a mere distraction. It is the most accommodating of genres – some of the greatest works of literature are crime novels (Crime and Punishment, Rebecca, The Great Gatsby).

2. Elmet by Fiona Mozeley and it is every bit as wonderful as people said. I would die to be able to write such beautiful sentences and be so observant of nature!

3. Probably the collection of Romanian fairy tales by Petre Ispirescu – Basme. My parents read them to me as a child. My poor father was exhausted and try to skip some pages, but I was wide-awake, knew them by heart and was very keen to correct him.

4. I wish they would hurry up and adapt all of the Narnia series (although I am not 100% happy with what they have done so far), since The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy are my favourites.

5. So many! But old loves are the best loves, aren’t they? I will stick to my beloved Pippi Longstocking, who refused to conform to gender or bourgeois expectations.

6. Count Fosco in The Woman in White is rather wonderfully menacing – and deliberately presented as an anti-villain (corpulent yet light-footed, jolly-looking yet sinister). Although perhaps Wilkie Collins is a little too fond of underlining his Italian ways…

7. I write mainly poetry and crime novels. But I have written a small number of stories. You can read the first story I ever wrote here. (with the usual apologies and disclaimers)

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Milos Forman captures all the craziness and menace of the original book by Ken Kesey and then some!

9. I’ve read 50 books so far in 2018 and at least 10 of those have been outstanding. One that really haunted me was Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken, which I received as part of the Asymptote Book Club subscription.

10. I will read anything by Tove Jansson and Shirley Jackson. There you go, you get two for the price of one!

11. I used to think that fantasy or YA were my least favourite genres – and they are certainly not my go-to genres of choice. But the ones that I never pick up nowadays are romance novels. Although I did go through a period of adoring Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt, if they count as romance.

12. Other than my favourite authors, you mean? My real-life friends seldom take my advice, but one author who has never disappointed when they did take it was Dorothy Parker (her short stories).

13. More film adaptations? OK, perhaps The English Patient. I read the book after sobbing my way through the film though. Besides, I was in love with Ralph Fiennes.

14. I used to read all of Jane Austen’s novels every year for about 10-12 years, and I still reread my favourite occasionally: Persuasion. But, much more frequently than that, with my children, The Gruffalo and Where the Wild Things Are. Every night for months, times two. I make that at least 180 times each.

15. Javier Marias: A Heart So Whitesimply because I’d heard that he was a long-winded writer who seems to change course in the middle of a sentence – an infuriating style. Instead, it really resonated with me.

16. Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Completely insane, funny, sharply satirical and delectable.

17. Probably the Diaries of Virginia Woolf and the Letters Home of Sylvia Plath. They both showed me that you can be both a woman and a writer, suffer from depression and yet still be incredibly creative.

18. Hmm, I have the feeling it’s best not to meet your favourite writers, for fear of being disappointed. I think I might be somewhat tongue-tied but glowing in the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Alternatively, I might be tempted to fatten up Franz Kafka and earn his disapproval forever.

19. Japanese writer Dazai Osamu – although be warned, he is not for the faint-hearted. He was drunk, depressive, treated women appallingly and tried to commit suicide several times (he succeeded at last, in a double love suicide in 1948). And yet nobody surpasses him in the description of the end of an era in Japan in his short stories and few novels such as No Longer Human and Setting Sun.

20. I return to crime with my favourite series of all time being Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. Well thought out from the beginning – 10 years, 10 books, a critique of society and a method of policing that is much more about painstaking work than fast-paced chasing or technological wizardry. It changed the art of crime writing forever.

 

WWWednesday 18th April, 2018

Let’s try once more to do the spring season then and hope that this time it’s here to stay. My April turn to take part in the meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

I seem to be travelling quite extensively in this week’s selection of books: Germany, France, Japan and Iran.

Current:

Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue

I’d forgotten how much fun Berliner Bernie Gunther is, especially across two timelines – on the brink of war in 1939 in Berchtesgaden and in 1956 France. Second World War and Cold War collide in spectacular fashion, with each crime having endless ramifications. 1939: A sniper assassinates a construction engineer on the very terrace of Hitler’s villa on the mountaintop in Bavaria. 1956: Bernie is on the run as he refuses to collaborate with the Stasi and fears for his life. Good old-fashioned suspense, wit, well-developed characters and attention to period detail – I will miss Kerr!

Just read: 

Yuko Tsushima: Territory of Light, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

A book initially published in monthly instalments in a literary magazine in 1978-79, which explains why in the story it is still so difficult for a woman to demand a divorce and live successfully as a single mother (especially in conservative Japan). There is no story as such, merely a succession of thematic snapshots of coming to terms with a new way of life. Light crops up both as an actual detail (they live on the top floor of an apartment block, bathed in light, which is what attracted the narrator to the location), and of course metaphorically.

Next: 

Négar Djavadi: Disoriental, transl. Tina Kover

In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic Kimiâ Sadr is preparing for fertility treatment. She is the only one there without a partner, but she has more than enough family (both immediate and extended, alive and remembered over generations) surrounding and influencing her, and she tells the saga of her family like a modern-day Scheherazade, as she straddles that uncomfortable border between her ‘homeland’ Iran and her feeling of ‘disorientalisation’ as she grew up in France.