#WITMonth: Olga Tokarczuk

I was smitten with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights when I read it and then had the good fortune to see her and her translator Jennifer Croft at the Hay Festival in 2018. I bought Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (this time translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) as soon as it came out, but for some reason I kept putting off reading it. Perhaps because I was sure I would like it, so I was saving it for a rainy day? What rainier day than a plague? But then I got a bit nervous that it might not live up to expectations. A blogger friend who had read it in German translation said it sounded somewhat pedestrian in that language.

Luckily, that was not the case, and my 18th Book of the Summer and first #WITMonth read was as good fun (and serious and thought-provoking and endearing) as I expected. It will certainly make my Top Read of the Year list – and feels remarkably appropriate for this period.

I’ve heard it described as Miss Marple meets Fargo, with a dash of William Blake, feminism and astrology, and that is probably not a bad description. Imagine a middle-aged spinster who lives in a fairly remote village on the border of Poland and the Czech Republic, in the Tartra mountains by the sounds of it. It is the kind of place that is a holiday resort in summer but deserted in winter, but she stays there all year round, looking after people’s second homes. She has a few neighbours, some of them friendly, some of them decidedly not: they view her as nuisance and a nag, with her constant complaints to the police about poaching and cruelty to animals – not that the police do much about it. One night, she and a friendly neighbour she calls Oddball find the body of their less friendly neighbour, nicknamed Big Foot. Convinced that his death was retribution for the way he hunted and killed deer, she sets out to do her own investigation and gets into conflict with the local hunting club, which includes members of the police, the church and pretty much everyone in the rural community.

Still from the film Spoor, photo by Robert Paeka.

That’s all I’m saying about the story, because it’s really not about the plot. It’s above all a fantastic and unforgettable character portrait of a rather formidable woman, who lives quietly but knows when not to be quiet, and who has all sorts of firm, one might even say extreme beliefs: pro-astrology, anti-religion, pro-animal rights, anti-hunting. She is prickly, spiky, yet somehow also endearing. She is mostly alone but not really lonely – although she misses her dogs (she calls them My Girls). She has a few friends who are as eccentric as she is.

Above all, she is full of sharp observations about modern life. Some of them might strike you as absurd, some of them as very perspicacious. She is of course living in the present day and therefore more adapted to modern life, but in many ways there is something timeless about her. The shrewdness of the native peasant, which is a whole branch of literature in Romania (perhaps in Poland too?). She reminded me of both of my grandmothers, larger than life but deliberately not romanticised.

I filled the book with post-it notes, there are so many arch, clever and sometimes downright wicked quotes.

With age, many men come down with a testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced capability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains.

I snorted with laughter, remembering a woman author saying how many middle-aged men she came across in the London Library who were writing biographies of Churchill or about planes and trains in the Second World War! The book is full of such darkly humorous observations which had me chortling.

She may have the sharpness of Miss Marple’s observational skills, but this is no mere onlooker. She writes letters, she protests, she argues with people, she does not suffer fools gladly – and she makes friends and has sex. Yes, really, at her age (which is never quite specified, but I suspect she is not as old as one might think). She also has the memorable voice of anger that I heard in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs:

Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.

But there are beautiful, almost lyrical and very sad observations about the transience of life, the passing of time, how we are all part of nature, which I then thought about as I was reading my next book, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. Both of these books are unforgettable and unrepentant in their clear view of the tiny part that humans play in the wider world.

Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances: soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.

I noticed a pregnant girl sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper, and suddenly it occurred to me what a blessing it is to be ignorant. How could one possibly know all this and not miscarry?

Tokarczuk was severely criticised in her native Poland for this book, especially once the film Spoor came out, which is based on this book and was directed by Agnieszka Holland. In an increasingly conservative and Catholic Polish society, it was described as anti-Christian and promoting eco-terrorism. I found this quote by Holland (as reported in The Guardian) very important for understanding both the film and the book:

Holland said the protagonist embodied many disillusioned women of her generation “who are very rational, working as engineers or scientists, who reject the official religion that became very politically corrupt and has little to do with Jesus Christ. But at some point they start to have the need to connect to something like astrology, yoga or zen. It’s the above-55 generation who believed in progress and in the freedom that came with the collapse of communism, and the fact they could take things into their own hands, but who have now lost this hope.”

 

#6Degrees of Separation: August 2020

Welcome to August 2020 edition of Six Degrees of Separation! This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. The fun lies in seeing what quirky connections readers can come up with, although it’s by no means a competition!

This month’s starting point is How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, which I’ve vaguely heard about and which sounds really interesting. It’s all about escaping from the constant demands on our attention in the 24/7 news cycle and social media saturated world we live in. I certainly feel I am spending far too much time on Twitter, the drug of my choice! However, from what I can tell, it’s not so much a self-help book as an anti-capitalism book.

Another anti-capitalism book from a globalised perspective is Capitalism. A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy, which looks at how multinationals have taken over from the British Empire in exploiting the natural resources and the people of India, and how they have started to infiltrate policy-making and government through their powerful lobbying groups.

Arundhati Roy is of course better known as a novelist, and another novelist who was also a political activist was Nadine Gordimer. Perhaps her most politically explicit novel was July’s People, in which she imagines a bloody civil war putting an end to apartheid in her native South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, so for my next connection, I choose another Nobel Prize winner from the Southern hemisphere (and incidentally, another politically engaged writer) Pablo Neruda from Chile. His love sonnets were indispensable reading (and quoting) for lovesick teenagers when I was in secondary school.

Another poet I revered in my teens – and who is in fact the ideal moody teen idol for those who would like to rebel but are too nice to do so – is Arthur Rimbaud, especially his A Season in Hell, in which he quite explicitly threatens to abandon poetry, which he did too all too soon, at the tender age of 21.

Speaking of precocious writers, the next link is to Daisy Ashford’s The Visiters, written at the age of nine (and published with all the spelling mistakes intact). Although she continued writing for a short while in her teens, but she stopped once the First World War broke out and afterwards when she got married and had children.

I’ve walked myself into a corner here, as I don’t want to focus on yet another precocious author, so instead I’ll try to find one with a similar title: The Visitor by Irish writer Maeve Brennan. The author was known primarily as a short story writer, but after her death the typescript of this short novel written in her 20s was discovered, and really confirms her exceptional (and very dark) talent.

As usual, I’ve been a bit of a globetrotter in my links and travelled this month to India, South Africa, Chile, France, England and Ireland. Where will your 6 Degrees take you?

Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.

 

 

Six in Six 2020

I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark:  you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!

 

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting 

Debbie Harry: Face It

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of

Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.

Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books

Machado de Assis – a rediscovery

Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from

Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore

Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost was so captivating and nuanced and sad that I certainly want to read more (I’ve read The Victorian Chaise Longue as well)

 

Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried

Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.

Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be

Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life – I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!

Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse – very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House

 

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – Naples, Italy

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis – my favourite sport and one of my favourite countries

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – town nestled amidst the Carpathians in Maramures, Romania

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting – the French Alps

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – Japan (and ghosts of the past)

 

Six books to read to avoid politics

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating & Cooling

 

Six books purchased during lockdown but not yet started

All of the below have been purchased following tweets or reading reviews by fellow book bloggers:

Helon Habila: Travellers

Tshushima Yuko: The Shooting Gallery and other Stories (transl. Geraldine Harcourt)

Luke Brown: Theft

Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them

Michele Roberts: Negative Capability

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight (transl. Peter V. Czipott)

 

#6Degrees of Separation July 2020

Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best

This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?

Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.

Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.

Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.

Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.

I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.

I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.

This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?

Addendum to the #20BooksofSummer

I admit it: I am a terrible cheat! But no sooner had I listed my 41 choices for the 20 books of summer, when I received a couple of new books in the post and a few more jumped out at me from the bookshelves. Positively assaulted me and clung to me, I’m telling you! So I’ve added to the inchoate pile on the carpet, ready for me to honour them with my final selection. I feel quite excited about this latest bunch, so I’m more likely to start with them than with some of the ones mentioned earlier.

 

The reason I like them is because, with two crime fiction exceptions, they are all pushing me a little outside my comfort zone. City of Stairs is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, a genre I very rarely read (although many of my favourite films are in that genre). Petit Pays and Evening Is the Whole Day are about the immigrant experience but from cultures that I know very little about (Burundi, India and Malaysia).

David Peace is always challenging stylistically and never more so to me than when he is talking about Japan in the immedate aftermath of the Second World War. Marian Engel’s Bear is more talked about (in prurient fashion) than read, since it talks about a woman having sexual fantasies about a bear. Shirley Hazzard is excellent at making expats squirm in recognition, while Olga Tokarczuk may have won the Nobel but has not endeared herself to the Polish government for her outspoken stance against right-wing views. Her book (and the film based on it) has been denounced as ‘deeply anti-Christian film… promoting eco-terrorism’ and I’ve been saving it for far too long for ‘a rainy day’.

That rainy day is now.

Remembering the Unforgettable Anthea Bell #AntheaBellDay

Yesterday, 10th of May, was the birthday of that wonderful translator and champion of German and French literature, Anthea Bell. After her death in 2018, Roland Glasser, himself a translator from French, had the following brainwave:

I realized that she was one of those people who had almost an immortal presence, like Bowie or Dylan, and was the nearest thing we translators had to a contemporary icon! Her reputation was on a whole other level. And in contrast to St Jerome [patron saint of translators], she was a contemporary woman translating secular texts and thus, in many ways, more relevant to many of us. I had visions of translators parading through the streets carrying her effigy (yes, I know that goes against the whole “secular” thing!). And so the idea for  #AntheaBellDay was born. Last year, the inaugural day coincided both with the AGM of the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires // European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich and an exhibition of Sebald’s photgraphs at the @SainsburyCentre at the University of East Anglia. It seemed most auspicious!

Every translator and every writer who has ever worked with Anthea Bell has expressed their profound admiration not only for her skills, but for her generosity of spirit and championing of her colleagues. Sadly, I never got to see or hear her in person, but she has nevertheless had a profound personal impact upon me.

As a child I discovered her translations of Asterix long before I got to know the name of the translator. I collected and read the Asterix and Obelix books in three languages: French, German and English. Even at the age of 7-8, I realised that the German language editions were OK but nothing to write home about, while the English language editions at times surpassed the original. My favourite examples are Getafix for the druid (so much wittier than Panoramix) and Dogmatix for Obelix’s little canine friend (which translates the spirit of Idéfix perfectly, but with additional humour).

Later, I became obsessed for a while with all things Sebald and this was where Anthea’s translations helped me most. I tend to read books in German and French in the original, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a multilingual environment. In my late teens/early twenties I was just a tad fanatical about it: poo-poohing reading in translation as ‘taking the easy way out’. Which was ironic, given that I was studying modern languages and training to become a translator and interpreter myself. However, when I read Anthea Bell’s translations, particularly of Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, I discover something new, an additional nuance that I’d missed in the original.

At a recent literary event, Julia Franck spoke about the joyous experience of being translated by Anthea Bell, and how difficult it was losing her. Anthea, Franck said, had an intuitive feel for the language and how to make it work in English, how to keep its melody and rhythm, while conveying several layers of meaning.

When I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, I read quite a few of Anthea’s translations of crime novels, such as those by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now, you know I love my crime fiction, but occasionally the style can suffer a little at the expense of the plot. Not so with Anthea’s translations – I remember a particularly beautiful description of a landscape which was much more eloquent in Anthea’s rendering of it than in the original text (of an author who shall remain nameless here). Anthea was no literary snob – she translated widely, across all genres (I am particularly fond of her children’s literature), always to the best of her abilities, rather than solely to a deadline or a pay cheque.

Below are a few of my treasured Anthea Bell translations. I do hope that this commemoration of her life and work will continue for many years to come. And I still aspire to translate maybe a third as well and as broadly as she did!

#6Degrees: Starting from The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Well, well, who’d have thought that this bleak novel would feel oddly appropriate for the times we are living through? McCarthy’s tale of a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape is the starting point for this month’s Six Degrees of Separation, a reading meme hosted by Kate and one that I always look forward to. We all start with the same book but our thought processes and associations are so different, we all have hugely divergent and entertaining journeys!

Despite the dark, dark story and patient accumulation of sordid details, I found The Road ultimately uplifting. Another book which perks me up even though everyone else seems to find it truly bleak is The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We read it in our English class in Romania in Communist times and interpreted it as a condemnation of colonialism, so it felt strange to me to see it being condemned as a racist book. Yes, he tends to see ‘the natives’ as an indistinguishable but much-oppressed mass, but that just shows (whether he was doing it deliberately or not) the imperialist attitude of the past and present.

Conrad of course, famously, was not writing in his native language – although, goodness knows, he certainly made English his own! Another author who writes in his second language, but so fluently that he had to pretend at first that he was being translated from his Rusian mothertongue, is Andrei Makine. His best known work Dreams of My Russian Summers explores this relationship with bilingualism and biculturalism, and draws on autobiographical elements. It’s the story of a young boy who grows up in the Soviet Union with a French grandmother and tells the story of the grandmother’s life as well.

Summers with grandmothers are the main feature of one of my favourite books The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The perfect little book, an understated expression of the love between a granddaughter and grandmother, the grief of losing a mother and daughter, as well as the freedom they both experience in a remote place in the middle of nature.

It would be far too easy to continue the rich vein of summer stories for the next link. Instead, I will focus on remote locations and the book that instantly springs to mind is Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, her memoir of finding salvation in wild nature and isolation in the Orkneys.

While I had some reservations about that book and the urge to find the perfect isolated spot with good Wifi, I have no reservations about recommending the nature writing and immaculately detailed and thoughtful observations of Kathleen Jamie in Sightlines. One of the most unforgettable essays in that book is The Hvalsalen, set in the whale museum of Bergen, so whales provide the link to my next and last book.

I’ll steer clear of the obvious choice, Moby Dick or Pinocchio, and instead opt for a book I haven’t read but which sounds both fascinating and emotional: The Lost Whale by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. It is based on a true story from 2004 about a young Orca whale who lost his pod and tried to strike up a friendship with humans. Publishers Weekly deemed that it ‘brings a thorny dilemma to the table–what should humanity’s role toward nature be?–and the book does a surprisingly good job of showing the range of emotions behind that question.’

So a thread which travelled from the US to the Congo to Russia to Finland to Scotland to Norway and finally Vancouver Island. Doing my best to travel while staying indoors! Where will your 6 links take you this month?

 

#6Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island…

Spring is in the air and another opportunity to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but once again this month I do not! The book is Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and the blurb states: For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

I want to move away from end-of-the-world narratives, as they feel a bit too topical at the moment. So instead I will focus on the fact that Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer. I have to admit I only very seldom get to read writers from Australia, especially women writers. One Australian author I particularly admire (although she travelled so much, she must surely have considered herself a global nomad author) is Shirley Hazzard. One book of hers I always, always recommend is the collection of linked short stories People in Glass Houses, which is a brilliant satire of the United Nations in particular (but really of all international organisations).

There are far too few good novels about office life, especially considering we spend so much of our time there. Perhaps publishers assume we all seek escapism rather than to be reminded of our deadly everyday? Another book about office life which I greatly enjoyed is Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, translated by Neil Smith. A narrator who evades all description and manages to find that secret escape room that I’m sure we’ve all longed for at the office at times. When I read it five years ago, I said: Very sharp, painfully funny but also ouch-harsh observations of office politics and recognisable office characters. Plus the lovely corporate jargon we all love to espouse at times. A short, unusual book which tests our own capacity for tolerance and imagination.

Turns out, there are a lot of novels with ‘room’ in their title, so I will opt for quite a well-known one next, one that I would like to re-read, as I was in my late teens or early 20s when I read it. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic of gay literature, a story evoking all the giddiness of falling in love, but ultimately all the sadness and suffering of a failed love.

The book is set in Paris, so of course I couldn’t resist picking another novel set in Paris for my next link. I saw it recently on the library shelves at university and was very tempted to pick it up for a re-read. Zola’s The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. Another young man seduced but ultimately undone by the bright lights of Paris!

One book about art and artists that I was obsessed with in my childhood, so much so that I took it with me on a family trip to Florence and insisted that we walk through the streets as described in its pages, was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I don’t know if it’s well regarded nowadays, or if it’s perceived as somewhat dated, but at the time I loved the descriptions of Florence and Rome, but above all, how the author managed to enter Michelangelo’s mind (via his notebooks, if I am not mistaken) and described the creative process.

My final link is via the word ‘ecstasy’ to a book that was part of my anthropological training. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was written in the 1950s but remains one of the key texts in the anthropology of religion. Needless to say, I’ve always been fascinated by this strange phenomenon of the Shaman, both healer and threat, revered and feared, the madman and the poet who does not subscribe to society’s rules.

So this month we have travelled from Australia to the United States to Sweden and Paris, to Florence and, in the last book, from Siberia to South America to Tibet and China and pretty much everywhere in-between. I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentioned mainly male authors this month, so will endeavour to change the proportion next month. Where will your six links take you?

Paul Auster: Winter Journal

Late for the memoir February, late for the Auster reading week, but I’d borrowed this from the library and was intrigued enough to continue reading. It’s a rather lovely continuation of The Invention of Solitude, this time the mother’s side of the story, as well as more about both his first and second marriage. He certainly seems smitten with his second wife, a companionship and meeting of minds which sounds very appealing – although clearly there was a lot of friendship with the first wife too, but perhaps not quite so much love.

I’m not really in the mood for reviewing, so I’ll just list below a few quotes which stayed with me.

[about his mother] There were three of her, three separate women who seemed unconnected to one another… you never knew which mask she would be wearing on any given day. At one end, there was the diva, the sumptuously decked-out charmer who dazzled the world in public, the young woman with the obtuse, distracted husband who craved having the eyes of others upon her and would not allow herself – not anymore – to be boxed into the role of traditional housewife. In the middle, which was far and away the largest space she occupied, there was a solid and responsible being, a person of intelligence and compassion, the woman who took care of you… competent, genberous, observant of the world around her… At the other end… there was the frightened and debilitated neurotic, the helpless creature prey to blistering assaults of anxiety, the phobic whose incapacities grew as the years advanced

Aren’t we all made up of such contradictory multitudes? He is far less critical of his wife, however:

Little by little… you discovered that you saw eye to eye on nearly everything of any importance… Much to your relief, your personalities were nothing alike. She laughed more than you did, she was freer and more outgoing than you were, she was warmer than you were… you felt that you had met another version of yourself – but one that was more fully evolved than you were, better able to express what you kept bottled up inside you, a saner being.

And his description of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of when they first met sounds like my ideal relationship: they go to a hotel, eat the restaurant, drink champagne and talk and talk and talk ‘the long uninterrupted conversation that started the day you met’. Sharing ideas and feelings, especially about personal and cultural things, are what makes me dreamy… But I was most amused by his rant about the dangers of nostalgia.

You have no use for the good old days. Whenever you find yourself slipping into a nostalgic frame of mind, mourning the loss of the things that seemed to make life better then than it is now, you tell yourself to stop and think carefully, to look back at Then with the same crutiny you apply to looking at Now… Of course you have manifold grievances against the evils and stupidities of contemporary American life… the sacendency of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senselss wars, the barabarism of legalized torture and extraordinary renditions, the disintegration of impoversihed cities like Buffalo and Detroit… the ever-gorwing crevasse that divides the rich from the poor, not to speak of the junk films we are making, the junk food we are eating, the junk thoughts we are thinking…And yet, go back to the year of your birth and try and remember what America looked like in its golden age of postwar prosperity: Jim Crow laws in full force throughout the South, anti-Semitic quota restrictions, back-alley abortions… the trials of the Hollywood Ten, the Cold War, the Red Scare, the Bomb… Every moment in history is fraught with its own problems, its own injustices, and every period manufactures its own legends and pieties.