#6Degrees of Separation September: Wildcard Pick

I missed last month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, since I was away on holiday, but it is one of my favourites and a good way to ease myself back into blogging after quite a hiatus. Here’s how it works: hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. No need to have an overarching theme, although some do, or connect the book to all of the titles on the list, just let your mind have a wander and see where it take you.

This month is Wildcard month, no set starting point, but Kate suggests we start with the last in the chain that we last completed or else with the last book we read. Well, the last chain I completed in July ended with the rather depressing Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and I’ve had enough of illness and death, so I will opt for the second version.

The last book I read was Jennie by Paul Gallico, a children’s story about an eight-year-old boy, feeling rather lonely and unloved by his upper-class ‘colonial style’ parents, who suddenly turns into a cat. It was the only book I could read during the last few days with my beloved Zoe, and it is clearly written by someone who loved and completely understood cats. Full of adventures but also gentle moments, not at all preachy, simply a beautiful tribute to friendship and love.

Another book written by a cat connoisseur is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, which shows that the very cerebral and earnest poet also had a humorous and tender side. Famously turned into a musical (and a rather horrid film). I love this edition illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

I don’t think T. S. Eliot’s book is necessarily aimed at children, but it relies heavily on wordplay and subverting expectations, which is certainly the MO for Dr Seuss and his famous (or should that be infamous) Cat in the Hat. I certainly could have done with a cat or other pet to blame (I was an only child) when there was mess in the house after one of my ‘pretend’ games.

I will stick to the cat theme and move to Japan, where of course cats are much loved and often feature in their literature, art, anime and manga. The classic book is Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, which is most certainly NOT aimed at children, but a satire about a rapidly changing Japanese society during the Meiji and Taisho period (turn of the 19th to 20th century), seen from the no-nonsense point of view of a cat.

Another Japanese novel where the cat is a pretext for the examination of adult themes, in this case a relationship turned sour, is Tanizaki Junichiro’s A Cat, a Man and Two Women, which once again is all about loneliness, tenderness and love in the most unexpected places.

When it comes to love triangles, of course the French could teach the world a thing or two, even when one of the corners of the triangle is a cat. My go-to book in that respect is Colette’s La Chatte (The Female Cat), about a marriage founded on jealousy of a cat, and although it features some deliberate cruelty towards the cat, you know that Colette would never allow a beautiful Chartreux to die (she herself had a succession of them, who followed her around everywhere).

My final cat-themed link is to that most formidable, shape-shifting, ill-mannered, incorrigible and evil cat of them all, Behemoth, the Devil’s sidekick, from The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. Who can resist the immortal line, which always makes me burst into laughter, as the troublesome duo try to enter the literary club:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.
“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.
“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.
“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

I have a T-shirt with Behemoth looming above the city (see picture), which I love to bits.

So my cat-shaped travels have taken us to London and Glasgow, the United States, Japan, Paris and Moscow. Let me know where your Six Degrees take you!

#SixDegrees July 2022

Apologies for not posting anything on Monday. This week will be a bit tricky; in fact, the next few weeks might be a bit off-schedule too, as I frantically try to cope with a sick cat, some additional work obligations, holiday preparations, and quite a bit of change in holiday plans. However, I could not resist joining in with Kate’s game of bookish links Six Degrees of Separation. This month it starts with Katherine May’s Wintering, a combination of memoir and nature writing which sounds utterly compelling. It is definitely on my TBR list, but no, I haven’t read it yet.

A book in a similar vein is Josie George‘s beautifully written memoir about living as a single mother with a disability A Still Life. The author has the eye of a photographer (you can follow her on Instagram) and the sensibility of a poet, and her loving observations of life in general, as well as the natural and urban world around her, are so inspiring that it’s a book I definitely want on my shelves, to dip into every now and then for encouragement and zest for life.

I did get the title of Josie’s book confused with another recent book, namely Still Life by Sarah Winman (I thought publishers tried to avoid titles that were too similar, or had been used many times before?). I haven’t read it, but I understand that it is set in Tuscany (wonderful, one of my favourite places) and depicts a wartime friendship between an English soldier and an alleged spy.

Books about wartime romances abound (although I understand no romance is involved in Still Life), but one that made me thrill and weep was The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I also liked the film adaptation, enamoured as I was with Ralph Fiennes, Kristen Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche simultaneously).

A book about a very different kind of patient, namely one who suffers TB of lungs and bones, is … no, not The Magic Mountain, but Romanian writer Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts (Inimi cicratizate). Set in a French seaside resort, with often gruelling descriptions of medical treatments, it is nevertheless a moving description of the will to live, love, encounter and drink one’s fill of beauty. There is also a 2016 film adaptation by director Radu Jude (which I am really keen to see).

A very simple link to my next book: by another author called Max, namely Max Weber and his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A must-read for any anthropology or sociology student in the second half of the 20th century, I liked the fact that he added the cultural dimension to Marx’s purely dialectic-materialistic examination of the origins of capitalism. I think it still has much to say about the difference between Northern and Southern Europe, for example.

Bit of a titillating cover from Penguin Modern Classics

By way of contrast, a very complicated link to the final book in the chain. Max Weber contracted the Spanish Flu in 1920 and died of related pneumonia complications. My last choice is one of the few books that directly addresses the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, namely Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, apparently based on the author’s own experience of falling ill with the flu and then recovering from it. The scenes of feverish hallucination are said to be among the best in all of literature.

Quite a lot of illness haunting today’s choices, not just because the starting point was about depression and family illnesses, but perhaps subconsciously also because of my worries about my sweet Zoe. Let’s hope next month will be considerably more cheery.

#6Degrees June 2022

Always happy to add in an extra blog post for this fun monthly meme: you start with the same book as all the other readers and then let your imagination run wild over the course of six links. For more explanations and an example of how it’s done, see the host of this meme, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

The starting point this month is a book that has had quite a bit of a buzz, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s the story of a woman who thinks there might be something wrong with her, but her husband keeps telling her everything’s fine, until the moment when he leaves her. I haven’t read it yet, but (for obvious reasons) it resonates with me and I intend to read it… after the buzz has quietened down.

I will start with another book about women’s mental health and husbands who fail to understand or sympathise (to put it mildly) – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s creepy and terrifying, with no humour or happy ending (which I gather Sorrow and Bliss does have), which makes it all the more unsuitable for the marketing treatment below.

who’s gonna tell them pic.twitter.com/zrCJ7cdLYT— Meaghan O’Connell (@meaghano) June 1, 2022

 

This (and the responses in the thread) made me laugh nearly all of Thursday, and the next link is to another misinterpreted book, namely The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. We recently rewatched the Disney adaptation and I was struck once more by how much it simplifies and whitewashes characters, while Hugo intended it to be more of a social and cultural critique. Quasimodo is a complex character (who wouldn’t be, given the circumstances of his birth, physical body and upbringing?), certainly not as innocent and childish as in the cartoon, but at least Hugo shows that people with disabilities can be more loving and noble than attractive people like Phoebus.

The book Wonder by R.J. Palacio was ubiquitous when my children were in primary school, as an example of a book designed to reassure children that facial disfigurement does not a lesser person make. My sons were somewhat bemused by the simplistic message, since they had already encountered plenty of classmates who did not ‘fit the norm’ already, but not everyone has those experiences, and I always appreciate books which broaden our horizons.

Very simple link comes next: the word ‘wonder’ in the title. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, hopefully I will be able to find it at the university library: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and the subtitle says it all, really:  The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The next choice is a play about the beauty and terror of science, more specifically physics. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists is a classic written at the height of the Cold War in 1962, after the Second World War had shown the incredible and destructive power of the atom, and how politicians are unlikely to use such power for good purposes.

In addition to being a playwright, Dürrenmatt also wrote crime fiction, first as potboilers, but then increasingly subverting the genre and introducing his own brand of philosophy about guilt and punishment and social responsibility. Another writer who is better known for his literary works, but also wrote crime novels (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake), is Cecil Day-Lewis and I will pick his most famous novel The Beast Must Die, which has been adapted at least twice for cinema, including by Claude Chabrol (see the film poster).

A thread heavy on men and/or English language this month, I notice, but that’s where my subconscious took me. I don’t overthink these things, let whim guide me. Where will your whim take you?

#1954Club: Tintin goes to the moon

I had no idea that 1954 was such a good year for literature, particularly children’s literature. So many old favourites were published that year: The Horse and His Boy from the Narnia series, the first in the Children of Green Knowe series, the first two volumnes in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lord of the Flies and Moominsummer Madness. Oh, and Good Work, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, which I have to admit I devoured when I was a child but my children never quite relished.

However, I haven’t had the time to reread any of these or to explore any other books for grown-ups published in 1954 this week, so I will participate with the shortest book I could find, namely Hergé’s 17th album in the Tintin series: On a Marché Sur La Lune (Explorers on the Moon), the second in a two-volume mini-series about lunar exploration. In this book, Tintin, Captain Haddock , the Professor Tournesol/Calculus, engineer Wolff and the Dupont-Dupond /Thompson twins, together with the only sensible creature on board the indomitable dog Milou/Snowy, all set off on the rocket to the moon. But the evil machinations that were afoot in the first volume continue, and there are betrayals and dangers aplenty, as well as impressive speculation of what one might find on the surface of the moon – considering this was written well before the first moon landing.

‘I’ve taken a few steps and for the first time in the history of humanity, one can say: “We have walked on the moon.” ‘ says Tintin long before Neil Armstrong.

This is such an iconic album that I don’t even remember when I first read it, but I remember rereading it with my boys while we were living in France and that they had a moneybox in the shape of Tintin’s rocket.

There are some running gags in the book which faithful Tintin readers will remember from other volumes: the sudden spurt in hair growth and change in hair colour of the twins, the Captain’s drinking habits, going round in circles. But there is also a lot of innovation and research, science fiction which later proved to be incredibly accurate – and the discovery of ice caves on the moon!

My favourite thing, however, is Milou’s adorable little astronaut costume.

I seem to remember in my childhood there was a French song about Milou and I wanted to link to it, but cannot find it anymore nor remember anything much about it other than that there was a Milou in the chorus and it wasn’t a children’s song. My favourite album used to be this one with the moon landing, but after living in Geneva for a few years, L’Affaire Tournesol overtook it, because so many of the landmarks were very familiar to me.

The British were latecomers to Tintin – the first translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not appear until 1958. They worked closely with the author to try and capture his humour, but the whole idea was to translate quite freely and anglicise things to make life easier for English-speaking readers, hence Milou becoming Snowy, Chateau Moulinsart became Marlinspike Hall etc. Some of the translations were very clever (like the Thomson/Thompson twins) or the Captain’s imaginative curses ‘blistering barnacles’ (Mille sabords! in the original).

So please excuse my very brief participation in the #1954Club, but do go and check out the links of everyone else taking part this week.

#6Degrees of Separation: From Graham Greene to…

Is it time for my favourite bookish meme already? O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! This is a monthly meme hosted by Kate where we all start with the same book but then each embark on our own journeys, via leaps and bounds of associations, connections and imagination (and cheating, quite frankly, in my case!).

This month’s starting point is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, which I haven’t read in a long time, but which I seem to remember as one of his better books (although not as fun and fast-paced as Stamboul Train). I like the theme of lost loves, of brooding over ‘what ifs’, and then being disappointed by the people in our past, but this book also incorporates a very strong religious slant, expressing Greene’s often conflicting emotions about Catholicism.

It’s this element of faith that links it to my first book in the chain. Romanian author Doina Rusti’s Mâţă Vinerii (translated by James Christian Brown as The Book of Perilous Dishes) has just come out with Neem Tree Press and it’s a delightful romp through Bucharest in 1798, featuring followers of the ancient (pagan) cult of Satori, who have the power to cure, influence or kill via their recipes, and who are now hunting for their missing recipe book lest it should fall into the wrong hands.

Satori is coincidentally also a creature somewhat like a horse in the Legend of Zelda, so my next link relies on horses. Black Beauty was a classic, of course, and I adored the Jill and Her Pony series by Ruby Ferguson, but one book that really stood out for me about the connection between a human and a horse was My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, in which a bit of a misfit boy very, very slowly befriends and tames a half-wild mustang filly. But all sorts of dramatic and sad things happen next – suffice it to say, I cried a LOT reading that book as a nine-year-old.

The rather misleading idyllic cover of the original edition.

Another children’s book featuring animals which made me cry (and the animated film is even worse!) is Watership Down by Richard Adams. The beautiful descriptions of the various rabbits and their behaviours were what drew me in, but of course the destruction of their habitat and the dangers they face filled me with anxiety.

When I originally saw the title ‘Watership Down’, I thought it was a space fantasy, almost certainly something to do with spaceships, so that is my next link, to the classic in the spaceship genre: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s an ambitious and intriguing book, but I have to admit I prefer the film version by Stanley Kubrick, which is not something I often say about books.

Of course the next link will be another book that I enjoyed but I marginally prefer the screen adaptation of it, thanks to fabulous performances by Jack Nicholson and the supporting cast, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I’d still recommend both reading and watching this influential book, cry for freedom, a manifesto against authoritarianism and manipulation of any kind, whether forceful and subtle.

There’s been a bit of an animal theme going on in this month’s set of links, so let me end on another obvious link via the name of a bird in the title of a book. I was a great Julian Barnes fan once upon a time (although I have loved his two recent books, The Only Story and The Noise of Time, they are far less experimental and fun than some of his earlier works) and one of my favourite books by him is Flaubert’s Parrot. I can obviously relate to his passion for all things French!

Only one book in translation this month, but we have still travelled quite far afield: from the old market squares of Bucharest, to the wilderness of Wyoming, from the disappearing fields of Hampshire to space, from an Oregon psychiatric hospital to France in search of the ‘authentic’ parrot which we can never find. Where will your literary travels take you?

#6Degrees of Separation February 2022

I’m always a few days late to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and My Best – it’s the fun bookish linking game, and this month we are starting with Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, an exploration of life lived in the social media age. I don’t think I’d be very interested in reading this, but I remember it came out at roughly the same time as another book written by a young American author on the same topic, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which I haven’t read either. That’s perhaps why I struggle to tell them apart, so Oyler’s book was the obvious first choice in my set of links.

‘Fake’ is what connects this to my next book, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground. It is the second in her riveting anti-hero Ripley series, and this time Ripley is involved in an art fraud rather than identity theft. Of course, he is perfectly to commit a few murders along the way to keep his involvement in the fraud a secret and his hard-won reputation safe.

From a book by Patricia Highsmith, to a book in which she plays the starring role, namely Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer. This is a work of fiction rather than a biography, but the author has done meticulous research and ends up producing an affectionate, but disturbing portrait of the famous writer.

Jill Dawson was originally a poet before she ventured into novel-writing, and there seems to be quite a trend for crime writers to also have a poetic sideline (or at least to have started out in poetry). Another famous example of that is Sophie Hannah and I am picking her most recent book in which she continues the Hercule Poirot legacy, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill.

With his monocle, hat, gloves and impeccable moustache, Hercule Poirot reminds me of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, although I am sure the Belgian detective would shudder to be compared to the French gentleman thief and master of disguises.

Although Emile Gaboriau is generally credited as being the first French crime writer, Maurice Leblanc is certainly among the first wave and achieved huge success with his literary creation. I was trying to find an equivalent in Romanian literature, but the early writers were either merely imitating imported models, or else considered themselves writers of literary fiction who used murders to make psychological or social and political points. Liviu Rebreanu in the early part of the 20th century was the author most preoccupied with crime, guilt and punishment, and his late novel Both of Them, about a double murder in the provincial town of Pitesti, is the one that most closely resembles detective fiction, featuring an ambitious young prosecutor investigating the case.

US, England, France and Romania – not quite as frenetic a travel schedule this month as some we have seen in the past. It has also been a rather unintentionally criminal chain! Where will your six links take you?

#SixDegrees of Separation: January 2022

You know the drill by now: start with the same book and end up wherever you like in just six jumps! One of my favourite bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility – and it’s always a problem when I’ve read neither the book nor anything else by that author.

However, I do think his name is rather strange (sounds like ‘Someone who loves towels’, right?), and it appears to be his real name rather than a pseudonym. So I will start with another American author with a strange name, although this one is decidedly a pseudonym. I discovered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events when I was looking to buy something funny and a bit different for the daughter of a friend about 18-20 years ago. The books were a big hit with her (and she has recently qualified as a doctor, not that I believe this was as a direct consequence of my thoughtful present). I read them later on with my children as well, and we loved them, shame that any TV/film adaptations haven’t quite lived up to them.

The second link is rather obvious: from the Baudelaire orphans to Charles Baudelaire, but not his most famous work The Flowers of Evil. Instead, I opt to go for another cranky later work, Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems which are little vignettes of daily life in Paris, foreshadowing so much modern writing, including flash fiction, micro-memoirs and more.

This volume was published posthumously, so for my next link I chose another posthumously published novel. I could have gone for the obvious, Kafka, or the most famous, A Confederacy of Dunces, but instead I will go for E. M. Forster’s Maurice, a gay love story that he could not publish during his lifetime because homosexuality was illegal at the time.

A simple jump via the name Maurice, straight into the imaginative world of Maurice B. Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, which was another firm favourite of my own childhood and that of my children. I even recreated a wild song and dance when reading it out loud. The best children’s books transcend generations, don’t they?

My favourite illustration from the book.

The hero of Sendak’s book is called Max, and for a while that was going to be my younger son’s second name. So once again, somewhat unimaginatively, I choose an author called Max. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of the first books I read when I embarked upon my anthropology studies and I still agree with many of the points he raised.

I will finish this series with another Max that I had to study, but earlier, in school, namely Max Frisch and his play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated into English as either Firebugs or The Fire Raisers). This play was written as a response to those saying that they would never have been taken in by the Nazis or the Communists, but it remains topical to this day, showing how ‘normal’ citizens can be taken in by evil and contribute to their own downfall.

Theatre poster for Biedermann und die Brandstifter.

So my literary travels at the start of this New Year took me from America to Paris, from Cambridge to the Land of the Wild Things, from a founding father of sociology to a Swiss playwright and novelist. I hope to travel even further this year, at least via books. Where will you be travelling?

Best of the Year: Delving Deeper

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – more than 160 books this year! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. This is yet another of my posts by categories, this time of authors that I have enjoyed in the past and finally got a chance to read more.

Yuko Tsushima: The Shooting Gallery and Of Dogs and Walls, transl. Geraldine Harcourt

Not just the daughter of my favourite Japanese writer, but an astounding writer in her own right. It’s a puzzle to me why she is not better known in the English-speaking world, even though she had been translated in the 1980s, but wondered if it was…

 … perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.

I was very moved to read her rather personal stories (or are they really all that autobiographical?) about her own family, which are especially poignant in the two stories Of Dogs and Walls.

A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

One of my absolute favourite writers. I have all her books on my bedside table, but there are still one or two of her novels that I haven’t read (because they were out of print for a long while). Now, thanks to the Penguin Classic reprint, I had the opportunity to read this tale of claustrophobia and manipulation, of growing up and trying to fit in.

I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.

Marlen Haushofer: We Kill Stella

Despite my love of Austrian literature, I only discovered Haushofer last year, when The Wall seemed the perfect companion piece to a pandemic. I have since made an effort to acquire most of her work in German and this novella bears all the hallmarks of her disquieting style, a quietly simmering surface hiding real horrors beneath.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Javier Marias: The Infatuations, transl. Margaret Jull Costa

Another author whose books I instantly acquired upon first discovering him, but never quite got around to reading more. This year I finally cracked open the less intimidating standalone The Infatuations and once more allowed myself to be lulled by that apparently meandering, baroque style.

Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.

David Peace: Tokyo Redux

The final part in the Tokyo trilogy has been a long time coming, so I simply had to get hold of it as soon as it came out this year. David Peace is a bit of a marmite author – and I have to admit that his style can get occasionally grating at times, with its excessive use of repetitions and oral effects. However, this book is a triumph, striking just the right balance of mystery and self-unravelling, of conspiracy and societal transformation.

You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, transl. Michael Henry Heim

A slim volume, but containing so many layers, so many ideas that I will no doubt have to reread it many times to fully grasp it. Quite unforgettable, this story of a humble paper-compactor who has learnt so much from the books he is pulping, and whose work is about to become automated.

Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’

Now that I see all my favourites in this category listed together, I realise they all have the common theme of the solitary protagonist, often an outsider, a person who is a little uncomfortable with society as it is, who questions things, who is often crushed, but very, very occasionally might rise – maybe not triumphant, but at least surviving.

Best of the Year: New Discoveries

I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – 160 books and counting! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. Bear with me, as this is yet another of my posts by categories. When I say New Discoveries, I don’t mean books that were published this year (I’ve already got a post on those), but authors that I may have previously heard about from social media or my blogger friends, but I’ve only just started reading this year.

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi, transl. Konstantine Matsoukas, Europa Editions.

Quite a challenging read for a mother of sons, this is the story about a middle-aged woman trying to reconnect with her son, who is on a brief release from prison for a rather grim crime. Told first from the mother’s point of view, and then from the son’s, it is a powerful story of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us and the challenges of communicating within the family.

…no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. 

I’m not sure that anything else by this author has been translated into English, and I wish my Greek were good enough to read more. I hear she is also active as a scriptwriter, so maybe I can dig out some films written by her.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence.

I was at work in London the day they announced the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I instantly rushed upstairs to the library to seek out the work of this British/Tanzianian writer. This was the first one I picked up, and on the strength of it, I have bought two more of his books (including a signed copy of his latest Afterlives from the London Review Bookshop, who organised a Q&A one evening with him recently, with Kamila Shamsie as the interviewer). His novels of displacement, of recreating an identity, of the impossibility of a return to your old life, really spoke to me. The quote below, for example, really shook me to the core (a sense of guilt I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life):

we need you here. Forgive me for saying this, but they don’t need you there. They have enough of their own people to do whatever is necessary, and sooner or later they will say that they have no use for you. Then you will find yourself in an alien land that is unable to resist mocking people of our kind. If you come back, you’ll be with your own people, of your own religion, who speak your own language. What you do will have meaning and a place in the world you know. You’ll be with your family. You’ll matter, and what you do will matter. Everything that you have learned there will be of benefit to us. It will make a difference here, rather than being… another anonymous contribution to the petty comfort and well-being of a society that does not care for you.

Marian Engel: Bear.

After hearing Dorian enthuse so much about this book, I had to read it and make up my own mind. I was certainly intrigued by it – although it was far less titillating than some recent reviews have tried to make it out to be. It felt much more like a fable, a simple story but with hidden depths. It is a novel about loneliness, about losing and regaining your passion, about reconnecting with nature and with your own true self.

What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is 

I immediately went on to read another novel by Marian Engel, the far more messy and obviously feminist Lunatic Villas, which I liked less, perhaps because of its sprawling nature. Yet I will certainly explore more of her body of work (not all that extensive, unfortunately, since she died relatively young).

Yoko Ogawa: The Memory Police, transl. Stephen Snyder, Vintage.

Of course I’ve read many reviews of Ogawa’s books, a number of which have been translated into English. But somehow, I never quite took the plunge. Hearing her talk about The Memory Police (published nearly 30 years ago) at the Edinburgh Literary Festival last year made me think it would be perfect reading matter for me, but I did nothing about it. That’s just how it goes sometimes with inertia! Luckily, book expert Jacqui and her colleagues at the Chorleywood Bookshop sent this to my son as part of his subscription, so I got a chance to read it before he did. I am still discombobulated by the beautiful descriptions which contrast with the rather frightening subject matter of enforced collective forgetting.

… this is the kind of book that can be interpreted in many ways: a political allegory; a story about grieving and the fear of ‘losing’ the loved one all over again as the memories fade; the inevitable physical and psychological decline as we grow older, even a slide into dementia; the impossibility of ever fully conveying the world as a writer; that the arts may be the only thing that save us ultimately and differentiate humans from other living beings.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife.

Another shocking omission from my reading: Irish (later Canadian) author Brian Moore. I have heard of his work, even bought the Judith Hearne book a few years back, but it’s still sitting patiently, unread, on my shelves. So it’s thanks to the #1976Club and several of my favourite book bloggers reviewing this title that I finally made his acquaintance – and it certainly was memorable, even if the book and its premise feel slightly dated. It is a Madame Bovary for the 1970s, I suppose, but the 1970s in Northern Ireland, which was probably more like the 1950s in England. Nevertheless, I became completely immersed in the story and felt sorry for everyone concerned. Even when they don’t deserve it.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. 

Isn’t it funny how, even when you are sure that a certain writer will be your precise cup of tea, you keep on postponing that moment of becoming acquainted? Maybe I am saving them for a rainy day? Well, these past two years have certainly taught us to make the most of things, and not delay for the rainy day…

Best of the Year: This Year’s Releases

I’ve read 160 books this year, so it’s impossible to stick to a list of a mere ten top favourites. So instead I’ve organised things by categories. Don’t worry, I won’t quite name 160 books! After a stint of rereading and a look at modern classics from the first half of the 20th century, I am now becoming more contemporary and looking at this year’s releases. This used to form the bulk of my reading back in 2013-2016 when I was doing a lot of crime fiction reviewing, but I have been much slower to read them these past 2-3 years. I now much prefer for the buzz to die down. The buzz for the titles below is more than justified, though!

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions

This book meant so much to me personally, both as a budding translator and as someone who studied Japanese, lived briefly in Japan and worked for Japanese organisations in the past. It is also written in such an interesting way: not just a memoir, not just an essay about translation or cultural encounters, and also a Bildungsroman, cutting a young person’s ego and certainties down to size (in painful ways, occasionally). Unashamedly subjective and yet universal.

…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water, Penguin.

I was utterly smitten with the beautiful, sensous, rhythmic prose of this one, a real prose poem, and for once the use of the second person felt completely justified. It also made me feel about nineteen-twenty again!

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful.

Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies, Faber & Faber.

The author captures the humdrum of the everyday but also the numinous moments of awareness, of things that occasionally make us change (but most frequently don’t). Understated yet so powerful – a voice that grows and grows on you at each reading.

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments. I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger, transl. Philip Boehm, Pushkin Press.

No other book conveys the plight of refugees so accurately, without being about refugees explicitly. In this portrayal of a privileged German Jew who suddenly finds himself on the run after Kristallnacht, the sense of hopelessness, of feeling hunted and unwanted, of casual and deliberate racism, the bureaucratic hurdles that make it nearly impossible to escape still feel extremely topical.

The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.

Yulia Yakovleva: Punishment of a Hunter, transl. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Pushkin Vertigo.

The first book in a very promising new series featuring retro-detective Zaitsev, set in 1930s St Petersburg, with the Stalinist oppression never far from the surface. There is a real sense of menace behind the perky crime fiction conventions which keep the story zipping along at a good pace, and a complicated story featuring serial killers, political machinations and priceless stolen treasure. In equal measure entertaining and educational, but we are never allowed to forget just how dangerous those times were.

If you haven’t found your favourite book of 2021 in the brief list above, there is still a chance they made my ‘Sheer Entertainment’ category, which will follow shortly, or else in my New Discoveries and Deeper Dives section.