Reading Bingo 2016

reading-bingo-small

I tried to resist it, but first I saw Cleo doing it, then Emma at Book Around the Corner, then Lisa Hall at ANZ Litlovers blog. Yes, I am weak-willed and have the mentality of a herd of sheep, but I enjoyed reading theirs so much that, in spite of my guilt at spending far too much time on it, I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend an afternoon (and escape writing Christmas cards this weekend). I did this last year too, and it’s one of the funnest ways to spend this time of year. Then, Emma made the fatal remark: ‘Bet you could fill in more than one for each category!’ So here is how I spent a whole day…

cabreMore than 500 pages

Knausgård: Some Rain Must Fall – self-absorbed, egotistic and utterly recognisable: the narrator/novelist at the start of his career

Jaume Cabré: Confessions – a mammoth of imagination and introspection, slippery characters and narrations overlapping

Forgotten Classic

Eizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – perfect poise and wry, self-effacing humour: all that I love about the English style

Jean Rhys: Smile Please – the darker side to English poise and elegance, with the tinge of obsessions, depression and ‘alienness’.

two-faces-of-january-posterBook that Became a Movie

Patricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – 2014 movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac

Maylis Kerangal: Reparer les vivants (just came out this November 2016) – a stylistic breathless tour de force, never thought it could be made into a film, but here is the French trailer

http://www.allocine.fr/video/player_gen_cmedia=19564553&cfilm=238997.html

 

Published This Year

krimiI read a lot of these, usually for Crime Fiction Lover reviews or Shiny New Books or Necessary Fiction. So I picked two more unusual choices:

Katharina Hall (ed.): Crime Fiction in German – an encylopaedic reference book which will answer all of your questions about crime in the German language

Péter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn – charming, quirky, loving, a feel-good book for a messed-up world, and now I want to see the film too

Number in Its Title

Italian edition.
Italian edition.

Initially thought I had no books in this category, but then I found two:

David Peace: 1974 – which could also have fitted into the first book by a favourite author category, despite its unrelenting grimness

Olivier Norek: Code 93 – the most notorious département of France, with the highest crime rates, in an entertaining and realistic debut by a former policeman

Written by Someone Under 30

A bit of a depressing category, this one, making me wonder what on earth I have done with my life! Maybe the free square should be ‘Oldest Debut Author’ category.

Lisa Owens: Not Working – I think Lisa was just about under 30 when the book was published, so certainly younger when she wrote it. The narrator sounds like she is in her early 20s.

Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna – published in 2008 in Brazil, when the author was 29, but only translated into English in 2015

monstercallsNon-Human Characters

I will interpret this very widely, as I don’t have anything else to offer: books that contain some human characters and some ‘supernatural’ presence

Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls – incidentally, there’s a film of this coming out too – not sure if I can bear to see it, as the book made me weep buckets!

Elizabeth Knox: Wake – something like a zombie apocalypse for grown-ups, a strange book, difficult to label

Funny Book

haas1You can tell the kind of reader I am when I tell you I had real trouble finding any funny books whatsoever in my 163+ books of the year. In fact, the second one is a crime novel with a humorous style, but a very grim subject matter. So not all that funny, then…

David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day – the joys and challenges of cultural misunderstandings between the French and the Americans

Wolf Haas: Komm, süßer Tod – a paramedic and ex-cop with a world-weary, typically Viennese view of the world, investigates some odd deaths in the ambulance service

Female Author

I think more than half of my reading has been by women authors this year – I have felt the need to surround  myself with their themes and words. Here are two books which haven’t been talked about as much as I would have liked or expected.

erpenbeck_gehenJenny Erpenbeck: Gehen Ging Gegangen – the ‘refugee problem’ in Germany gets a name and a face in this thoughtful, non-sentimental book

Elizabeth Brundage: All Things Cease to Appear – rural noir meets Gothic horror meets crime fiction, yet transcends all of these in a remarkable yet quiet novel of great depth

Mystery

dardMy preferred reading matter, of course, so I’ve tried to look at two real ‘mysteries’ (puzzles), which force the reader to work things out from the clues.

Anthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders – vivacious remix of Golden Age crime elements, without descending into pastiche, as well as a satire of the publishing world

Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage – the ‘impossible situation’ mystery, with lashings of film noir atmosphere, a stylish French stunner

belongingOne Word Title

Eleanor Wasserberg: Foxlowe – disquieting fictional look at growing up in a cult

Isabel Huggan: Belonging – warm and loving like a mother’s hug, but also a thought-provoking meditation on what home means

Short Stories

Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs (eds): Sex and Death anthology  – the two constant preoccupations of humankind and a rich variety of stories for all tastes

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – poetic yet never overwrought, grimly realistic, it’s the darker side of life in London as a millenial

Free Square – Book that didn’t work for me at all

L.S. Hilton: Maestra – 50 Shades of Grey meets online shopping catalogue and serial killer tropes; messy, gratuitous and clearly chasing bandwaggons.

signsforlostchildrenSet on a Different Continent

Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children – Truro and Japan and never the twain shall meet – or will they? A new author discovery for me this year, one that I want to read much more of.

Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – set in Brazil, we travel the country but also inside the mind of a delusional young man, which makes for an uncomfortable, yet often also funny and exciting experience

Non-Fiction

Åsne Seierstad: One of Us – close factual examination of Anders Breivik and the staggering massacre of young people in Norway, frightening reconstruction of events

Olivia Laing: Lonely City – a very interesting mix of memoir and research, art and literary criticism, to explore the idea of loneliness in big cities

wife1st Book by Favourite Author

Tiphanie Yanique: Wife – debut poetry collection, but I am completely won over and will read anything that this talented Caribbean poet and fiction writer puts in front of me.

Stav Sherez: The Devil’s Playground – while waiting for his latest novel to come out, I went back to his debut novel (not part of the Carrigan and Miller series), originally published in 20014 and set in Amsterdam

Heard About Online

This is a bit of a false category, as I seem to find out about most books nowadays via personal recommendations on Twitter. However, both of the authors below I got to ‘meet’ via Twitter, before they had even published the books described/

in-her-wake-vis-4-2Amanda Jennings: In Her Wake – a genre-busting, mysterious, ethereally beautiful tale, with strong female characters, set in Cornwall

Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour – set in Paris, a book defying age and sex conventions, without being prurient or irrelevant (unlike Maestra)

Bestseller

Ha! I realised I had no idea if any of the books I’d read this year were bestsellers (from what number of copies sold can you consider them to be that?), but I assume Fred Vargas always sells a ton in both French and English, while Andrew McMillan’s debut collection of poetry has won many awards and done so well for poetry standards.

Andrew McMillan: Physical – see Naomi Frisby’s excellent review here

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

aloneberlinBased on a True Story

It’s the style that I loved in both of these, the simplicity, lack of artifice, just letting the words speak for themselves. The fact that they were both rooted in reality was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin

Antoine Leiris: You Will Not Have My Hate

Bottom of the TBR list

I bought both of these books around 3-4 years ago, in an elan of wanting to read more East European literature, but then forgot about them. One sat on the shelf, the other on my e-reader. I wanted to like them so badly, but when I did get around to them, they were each rather disappointing.

Marius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du Loup

Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons

promesseLoved by a Friend

Romain Gary: La promesse de l’aube – pressed into my hands as a parting gift by Emma herself, I have finally fallen in love with this author and bought more of his books. At some point I want to write a proper in-depth study of his work but I need to read more.

Elena Ferrante: Neapolitan series – so many people recommended this one to me, but I was wary of the hype, although I’d liked other books by this author. I did enjoy it, although it did not quite blow my socks off.

Scary

uninvited-liz-jensenLiz Jensen: The Uninvited – chilling, filling your heart with gradual dread, magnificent handling of suspense and atmosphere, a book that will make you look at your children in a different way

Michelle Paver: Thin Air – another atmospheric ride – everything is hinted at, nothing is quite seen

10+ Years Old

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone – it doesn’t get older than this, one of the world’s first proper detective novels

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent – it may reflect growing up in Romania in the 1920s, but teenagers have always been a world to themselves

b-very-flat-coverSecond Book in a Series

Dolores Redondo: The Legacy of the Bones – 2nd in the unusual, slightly supernaturally tinged series set in the damp, foggy, superstitious region of Baztan in Spain

Margot Kinberg: B-Very Flat – 2nd in the Joel Williams series, set in a small-town university campus in the US, cosy yet not twee, civilised crime fiction

Blue Cover

blackmilkI love my blue covers, even if there does seem to be a super-abundance of them lately, so here are two non-fiction books with gorgeous covers.

Elif Shafak: Black Milk – the most imaginative way of speaking about post-partum depression and the challenge of being an intellectual, a woman and a mother in this century

Melissa Harrison: Rain (Four Walks in English Weather) – a bit of a ramble through landscapes, nature observations, literature and what not else – a book to dip in and out, very enjoyable. If Inuits can have so many words for snow, you can imagine there are more than four kinds of English rain…

So, dear friends, far be it from me to lead you into temptation, but what would your reading bingo list of the year be?

 

 

 

 

November Reading Round-Up

My reading speed seems to have gone down over the last few months, despite my endless sleepless nights. I seem to start many books and then spending simply ages not quite getting round to finishing them. I have continued reading and writing poetry, but my unofficial NaNoWriMo did not work out. Still, lack of success on the writing front usually means I find refuge in lots of reading, so it’s puzzling that this has not been the case. I have read just ten books (it may seem a lot, but quite a few of them were rather short), but I’ve been even worse when it comes to reviewing. So, with apologies, here are some very succinct reviews in some cases.

Crime fiction and psychological thrillers:

suitablelieMichael J. Malone: A Suitable Lie

Not really a conventional domestic thriller, although it does turn the tables on domestic violence. It is more of a character study and very effective in describing the cycle of hope, obligation, guilt, fear, love, a whole rollercoaster of emotions.

Rob Sinclair: Dark Fragments

 

pasttenseMargot Kinberg: Past Tense

Although the theme of sexual harassment in college is very topical and disturbing, this is a welcome change of pace to the darker, grittier type of crime fiction. A civilised campus novel, with most people able to converse elegantly with each other (although they still lie, or exaggerate or omit things).

Emma Kavanagh: The Missing Hours

Jo Nesbo: Police (transl. Don Bartlett)

I’ve loved some Harry Hole novels (The Redbreast, The Snowman) and been less enthusiastic about others, but he is undeniably a page-turner. I took him spontaneously out of the library to see just how he manages to build that sense of dread, foreboding, suspense. This story was perhaps a little too convoluted for my taste, but every time there was someone alone in a venue, searching for something, and they would then hear a noise, I jumped out of my skin.

Literary fiction:

Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

Laura Kasischke: Suspicious River

mrspalfreyElizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

I expect nothing less from Elizabeth Taylor than this beautifully observed study of the foibles of human nature, our innate selfishness, the stories we tell ourselves and others to justify our behaviour. It is a humorous and very poignant look at ageing and loneliness. What struck me most was the dissolution of family ties, how little we really come to mean to those whom we have been conditioned to think of as the nearest and dearest. There are many characters, each one instantly recognisable, yet carefully avoiding stereotypes.

Non-fiction:

Antoine Leiris: You Will Not Have My Hate

Between non-fiction and short stories:

Ali Smith: Public Library

My book of the month is You Will Not Have My Hate, for the emotional devastation it wreaked on me. My second choice, which also managed to squeeze a tear or two out of me, is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

So, cheery Christmas reads next? I don’t really like ‘seasonal books’ but I’d better find something less gloomy or else my insomnia will never improve! And that Netgalley list needs to go down as well!

 

 

Escapist Reading Mini Reviews – and One That’s Not

I’m never going to catch up on all of my reviewing, so here is a brave and brief snapshot of some recent reading. All of the below are quite engrossing and make for good escapist literature (entertaining but not ‘light and cosy’ reading). Except the last one, as you’ll see.

magpieAnthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders

Horowitz is amazingly prolific (he cites Charles Dickens as an influence, so it’s not surprising), but in this book he gives us a bit of a bargain: two mysteries for the price of one. We start out with a classic Golden Age-type mystery written by recently deceased author Alan Conway but set in sleepy 1950s English villages, featuring his much-loved detective Atticus Pund. Any similarities to a certain Belgian detective with a moustache and hyperactive grey cells are entirely deliberate and Horowitz is clearly having enormous fun playing around with the tropes of the genre (and also showing us the weaknesses of Conway’s writing). However, just as Pund is about to assemble all the suspects and tell them who the murderer is, the manuscript ends and Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland has to find the rest of the story. And of course uncovers much more in the course of things, because it appears that this last manuscript contains many secret codes and messages and point to a real-life murderer. Much mocking of the publishing world and literary egos ensues.

For sheer unadulterated fun, great imagination and verve of storytelling, few can match Horowitz. He’s a great favourite with my boys, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed his versatility as a scriptwriter (Foyle’s War is a particular favourite). I’ve not read his Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I know he can echo and then subvert existing crime fiction styles and themes: James Bond in Alex Rider, Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett in The Diamond Brothers, and now Agatha Christie.

schollAnja Reich-Osang: The Scholl Case (transl. Imogen Taylor)

For anyone familiar with German history, the name Scholl evokes the brother and sister Scholl who dared to confront Nazi ideology back in the 1930s and were executed for their efforts. This book has nothing to do with them, but it’s what made me request it from Netgalley. Long live misunderstandings and serendipity!

What it does instead is present the real-life case of the 2011 murder of a 67-year-old woman in Ludwigsfelde, a small town just outside Berlin. The victim was Brigitte Scholl, wife of former mayor Heinrich Scholl, regarded as one of the most successful local politicians of East Germany after the reunification. At first, there were rumours that Brigitte was raped and killed by a serial killer, but a few weeks later her husband was arrested, pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he pleads not guilty and German journalist Anja Reich-Osang examines the evidence in this factual recount of events.

There is no miscarriage of justice here, no spectacular revelations, just a chronological examination of two egocentric main characters and a thorough analysis of a long and difficult marriage. Despite the rather dry style and the often conflicting statements from friends and relatives, the events themselves are sensational enough to make this a compelling read. It’s also impossible not to see the sudden rush to a free market economy as a contributing factor in this domestic tragedy.

essexSarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

I’ve been keen to read this one ever since it came out and I heard so many reviewers raving about it. I’m not all that keen on historical fiction nowadays, but I was sucked into the story and atmosphere right from the beginning. There is something so beguiling about settling down with a proper, old-fashioned tale of wonder, mystery and subverting of clichés about Victorian life. There are also some great characters to sink your teeth into, each one of them interesting in its own right, none of them two-dimensional, even if they only have the briefest of  appearances. I didn’t personally warm too much to Cora and Will, the traumatised widow and the questioning vicar, although I appreciated the complex relationship between them, a marriage of true minds rather than lust. However, I was intrigued by Cora’s son, Will’s wife and the surgeon Luke Garrett. The atmosphere of menace, the sense of doom and waiting for the curse of the serpent to strike the village is so well conveyed.

It felt like a rich medieval tapestry to me (very much in keeping with the beautiful cover): flamboyant, easy on the eye (readable), full of poetry and grace, but not quite providing enough insulation for the bare stone walls. The ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, rushed and yet repetitive. So, a wonderful premise and world-building in the first half of the book, but a bit of a drag and a disappointment in the last few chapters.

publiclibraryAli Smith: Public Library and Other Stories

Not really a collection of stories (although it does contain some fiction), more of a love ode to the power of reading and of public libraries. Certainly something with which all book lovers will concur, and she talks with authors and librarians about what reading means to them and why libraries are important. So it does have the feel of a specially commissioned work. Yet the stories are wacky, dream-like, written in an off-kilter tone which will surprise you, interspersed with personal anecdotes. There is the story of a man who can simply not understand his ex-wife’s love of books, until he too falls under the spell of Katherine Mansfield. The life story of an obscure Scottish poet Olive Fraser. What happened to the ashes of DH Lawrence. The woman who starts growing a tree out of her chest. Uneven, odd, but a great book to dip in and out of, and allow oneself to be surprised – much like in a library.

suspiciousLaura Kasischke: Suspicious River

This was the book I was reading the night I was following the results of the American election and I wouldn’t recommend it as the best escapist fiction. In fact, it shows depressed, hopeless small-town America (a town called Suspicious River) in all its grey drabness, male sexual predatory behaviour and women’s collusion to it in grimly plausible detail. At any other time, perhaps, I would have appreciated the disturbing poetic style (which contrasts so much with the bleak storyline), but on this occasion it went over my head. Admittedly, the poetic descriptions and metaphors did try a bit too hard on occasion, but it’s worth remembering that this was the debut novel by a confirmed poet.

Leila is a young married woman, working as a motel receptionist and dabbling in prostitution with the male clients checking in. Flashbacks to her childhood, her glamorous mother carrying on with her father’s brother behind his back, her mother’s sudden death and all the neglect which followed, explain to a certain extent Leila’s strange apathy and seeking out of painful experiences. A very troubling book, because of its subject matter and the cold way in which Leila seems to depersonalise her experiences and almost invite bad things into her life. So save this one for when you have a very strong stomach, or when you have got over the pain of the American election results.

Still, I enjoy Kasischke’s poetry and was really impressed by her more recent novel Mind of Winter, so I will continue to seek out her work. I will also be attending a poetry masterclass with her this coming weekend, so wish me luck!

 

#13Novembre2015: You Will Not Have My Hate

This is Remembrance Sunday and for me that means remembering both those who died in battle, but also those who died as civilians in a war which is no longer confined to professional soldiers or geographically limited battlefields.

hateYou Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris (transl. Sam Taylor) is a perfect way to commemorate the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. Antoine’s wife Hélène had gone to the Bataclan concert that evening, while he stayed at home to babysit their 17 month old baby, Melvil. A day or so later, Antoine wrote a moving open letter on Facebook addressed to his wife’s killers, which quickly became viral.

This very slender volume builds on that open letter. It is a collection of diary entries and reflections, a poignant story of life after loss, of learning to cope in the face of tragedy, and refusing to be cowed or to descend to the level of hatred and vengeance.

Not many people understand how I can so quickly get over the circumstances in which Hélène was killed. People ask me if I’ve forgotten or forgiven. I forgive nothing, I forget nothing… of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, a chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order not to hate what’s left of your life.

There are so many poignant little details about grief here. Losing oneself in the routine of feeding and bathing a child, so as not to have to think. The home-cooked baby meals prepared by the mothers at Melvil’s nursery, which he never eats, because he was used to supermarket meals. Learning to cut his son’s fingernails for the first time. Resenting the meter reader because he represents life going on. Choosing the clothes for his wife’s funeral. It is unadorned, heartfelt and full of love, and it made me weep.

Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero. I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate, that’s all. It did not ask me what I thought first. It didn’t try to find out if I was ready. It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her. Since then, I have been lost: I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know how to get there.

helenemuyalleirisThere is no egocentric posturing here, it’s a simple account of grief and learning to live, while fearing the possibility of forgetting. We don’t find out anything about their jobs or politics. All we hear about is their love for each other, for music and for their child. A story stripped to its bare bones and all the more beautiful for it.

As for why he wrote the book:

It will not heal me. No one can be healed of death. All they can do is tame it. Death is a wild animal, sharp-fanged. I am just trying to build a cage to keep it locked in. It is there, beside me, drooling as it waits to devour me. The bars of the cage that protect me are made of paper. When I turn off the computer, the beast is released.

Three American Women Poets: Maxine Kumin, Cecilia Woloch, Sharon Olds

Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.
Maxine Kumin with her beloved horses.

After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.

Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems

Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.

Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.

If only death could be

like going to the movies.

You get up afterward

and go out

saying, how was it?

Tell me, tell me, how was it?

From the Poetry Foundation website.
From the Poetry Foundation website.

Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:

Luck of the alphabet,

since 1961 we’ve leaned

against each other, spine

on spine, positioned thus.

Upright or slant, long may we stand

on shelves dusted or not

to be taken up by hands

that cherish us.

Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia

I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.

Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.

Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:

And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?

And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,

knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire

into the further room of love?…

And were we not lovely, then, were we not

as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?

Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.

Sharon Olds: The Wellspring

Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.
Sharon Olds in The Daily Mail.

I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.

It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.

wellspringSome critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.

In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.

Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…

#GermanLitMonth: Robert Seethaler – Der Trafikant

germlitmonth

It is 1937 and 17 year of Franz Huchel leaves his beloved mother and the little village on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut (an idyllic area of Austria) to come to Vienna to train to be a tobbaconist, i.e. a seller of newspapers, cigars and other small merchandise in the formerly ubiquitous Tabak-Trafik stores of the Austrian capital.

tabaktraficOtto Trsnjek, his new boss, is a bit grumpy and demanding, but then he did lose a leg in the war and he hates politics because of its impact on the cigar industry. Franz is naive but means well and struggles to learn more about tobacco and the newspapers. He is fascinated by one of the regulars, Professor Sigmund Freud, famous by then all over Austria. As Franz sets out to discover the world of women and affairs of the heart, he asks Freud for advice, which leads to some of the funniest scenes of the book. He tells Freud that he plans to read all of his books, to which the elderly professor replies [my translation rather than the official one, with some cutting of the text]:

‘Haven’t you got anything better to do that to read the dusty old tomes of an old man?’

‘Like what, Professor?’

‘You’re asking me? You’re the young one here. Go out in the fresh air. Take a trip. Have fun. Find a girl.’

Franz looked at him wide-eyed… ‘A girl? If only it were so easy…’

‘Well, most people have done it.’

‘That doesn’t mean that I will.’

‘And why wouldn’t you, of all people?’

‘Where I come from, people know something about timbering or how to eke money out of the summer tourists. They don’t know a thing about love!’

‘That’s normal. Nobody knows anything about love.’

der-trafikant-robert-seethaler-1So this is a coming of age story, but given the setting and time period, you just can feel in your bones that it’s not going to end well. This sense of doom permeates the whole book, although there are plenty of light, amusing moments. Seethaler is a great storyteller, and the book is filled with memorable characters.

Franz pursues his love for a round-faced Bohemian girl through the Prater amusement park and the whole city, but is soon disappointed, while Freud proves to be no help whatsoever in affairs of the heart. However, he does take the old man’s advice on another matter: every morning he writes out his dreams from the night before and sticks them in the shop window. This attracts clients: some of them can relate to those strange dreams, but it leaves many more of them shaking their heads. The symbols of hatred, the day-to-day bullying or ignoring or complaining by the neighbours starts to build up. The shop front is daubed in pigs’ blood for daring to serve Jewish customers. Dr. Freud decides to leave the country. And Otto and his disciple… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what happens to them. The ending is perhaps just slightly sentimental, yet feels completely right.

Of course, with my current obsession about relationships between parents and children, I particularly adored the exchange of postcards and letters between Franz and his mother: such sweet, warm exchanges, yet very no-nonsense too. A mother all too aware that her (still) teenager is embarrassed by her, shows a lot of patience and understanding when he falls in love, but who insists: ‘Stop calling me ‘Mother’ in your letters, I’m your Mama and that’s that!’

tobacconistGood news: following the success of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, this other novel of his has just recently been translated into English as The Tobacconist, transl. by Charlotte Collins, published by Picador. Bad news: the cover shows some random Central European townscape, rather than the Votivskirche/Währinger Straße area of Vienna, which provides the backdrop for the story.

See below a more suitable suggestion, although probably from 1910s.

From Vienna.at website
From Vienna.at website

 

Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children

Actually, I wanted to read the latest book by Sarah Moss The Tidal Zone, but my local library did not have it. Then I thought her non-fiction book about living in Iceland might be of interest, or her book about the clash between motherhood and an academic career Night Waking. But guess what? They didn’t have those either, so I picked up Signs for Lost Children instead, looked at the blurb and thought: pioneering women in medicine? Meiji Japan? hmmm, intriguing topics…

That’s what is so amazing about Sarah Moss: every single one of her books is very different and yet each one sounds fascinating in its own right. There are far too few writers nowadays who can surprise without disappointing you from book to book.

signsforlostchildrenSigns for Lost Children is a gendered history of discovery. Tom and Ally, the newly married couple at the start of the book, discover new worlds, both outside and within the relatively narrow confines of Victorian society. They also go on intense personal journeys, are forever changed and may not find their way back to one another. Just a few weeks after getting married, Tom sets off to a rapidly modernising Japan to build lighthouses, while Ally stays behind in Cornwall to work in a women’s asylum.

At first the scrupulously alternating chapters between his voice and her voice, Japan and England, felt somewhat belaboured, especially since there was a bit of time lag between them (the time it takes for a letter to travel between the two countries by ship, perhaps). Later on, I began to appreciate the parallel structure: it was like watching a tree grow into two separate trunks, yawning apart.

The chapters on Japan were, of course, a delight for anyone who has ever visited Japan, but had a lot to say about British Empire as well (or present-day expats in exotic locations). The observations about Western blindness to Japanese nuance and traditions are spot-on, and the firm insistence that the Japanese should adapt themselves to Western standards, for example, that their chefs should cook English meals (which they slaughter mercilessly) is very funny.

Mrs Senhouse apologises again for the dinner. It is so hard to explain to Japanese servants what is required.

Tom sets down his fork. The food indeed requires apology. ‘Perhaps a Japanese cook would be more competent in preparing Japanese food?’

She wrinkles her nose. ‘It is the slimy things one cannot abide. Rice, of course, and clear soup, but I cannot expect Mr Senhouse to do a day’s work on such pauper food.

He thinks of the jinrikisha men, and the men who carried stones up the rocks for the lighthouses, and the men on the mountain farms.

Senhouse is also giving up on what is probably tinned ham cooked in salty brown sauce with some inexplicably gluey vegetable admixture. ‘The Japanese constitution is a mystery.’

Tom himself starts out dreading the tea ceremony and ends up appreciating it, even bringing it back with him to England. Of course, this is Meiji Japan we are talking about, the period when Japan opened up to the rest of the world after several centuries of isolation. They caught up with Western technology remarkably quickly, to the point where they started producing fake traditional goods for the Western visitors to take home as souvenirs.

Meanwhile, Ally begins to suspect that the women who are locked up in the Truro asylum are driven mad by their family life, and find more respite in the hospital itself, despite the harsh conditions there and the unsympathetic nurses.

… if all the women in here who speak of indecent things, who recount endlessly obscene acts and unnatural couplings, are speaking from unhappy experience, then their madness may be perfectly reasonable. May be the inevitable response of a healthy mind to things that should not happen. And if that is the case, then the primary problem is not so much with the minds of some women as with the acts of some men. Older men, almost invariably. Men with power.

Ally herself is susceptible to the anxieties which haunt these women. Growing up with a kindly but absent father focused too much on his own artistic career, a mother who shows more concern and sympathy for the general ills of the world than her own daughter and a sister who committed suicide, she experienced her own nervous breakdown early on. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to find her way as a female doctor in a world which is not quite ready for them yet, where even the most kindly friends and relatives do not understand her need to be working with mad people.

Author photo from Granta Books website.
Author photo from Granta Books website.

But will Tom understand her when he returns from Japan? Long-distance relationships are never easy, but in that particular time and place it must have been harder still. The author steers clear of both the saccharine and the bitter in describing the reunion. Will they each, separately or jointly, find that ‘place of healing and hope for the future as well as a distaste for the past’, which Ally is trying to create for her ‘lunatic’ women? The proto-feminist storyline blends seamlessly with the cross-cultural dimension: ultimately, it’s all about keeping an open mind, being curious and forgiving about others.

An elegant novel, with understated prose which nevertheless burns lyrically intense at times. I will certainly be reading more of Sarah Moss … if ever I can find her. (And isn’t that a beautiful cover?)